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Early XFL Standouts Who Should Be Grabbing the NFL's Attention

Brent Sobleski

The XFL fills a much-needed void between the NFL and collegiate ranks as a developmental league.

Sure, Vince McMahon's latest endeavor into football isn't marketed in such a manner, but that's essentially its purpose. The league's "For the love of football" tagline is meant to hearken back to a more simplistic approach, but players aren't nearly as well-compensated for their contributions as they would be in the NFL.

As such, getting into the NFL—and the rewards that come with that status—is the goal of every XFL player.

But not all of them were ready to contribute when an opportunity arose. XFL rosters are mostly made up of talented players who fell just short of 53-man rosters in the NFL. Some even played in the league for years.

Those older performers can serve as the backbone of the XFL, while younger options can take advantage of the reps to become better football players and finally get a legitimate shot at the highest level. The defunct Alliance of American Football, for all of its failures, still had dozens of players sign with NFL teams going into training camp last year.

The following eight players are 27 years old or younger and have the potential to stick on NFL rosters if they continue to perform well throughout the XFL's inaugural campaign.

       

8. OT Jarron Jones, New York Guardians

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The XFL was made for players like New York Guardians left tackle Jarron Jones. He can prove all of the previous critics and doubters wrong.

No one ever questioned Jones' physical talent or ability. Decision-makers questioned his drive through the 2017 NFL draft process, though.

"He's talented, but I just don't think he loves the game enough for me to back him in our room," an NFC director of scouting told NFL.com's Lance Zierlein. "Who doesn't love those long arms? We all do, but I think he's lazy and will head south as soon as he has more time and money on his hands."

Jones, 25, already proved the naysayer wrong on two fronts. First, he converted from defensive tackle to offensive tackle—which isn't an easy task. Second, he's playing in the XFL. Clearly, he's more committed to his craft than originally given credit for.

From a performance perspective, the 6'6", 320-pound blocker with 35½-inch arms has good movement skills. Yes, he's still a work in progress from a technique standpoint. He did a more than adequate job of protecting Matt McGloin's blind side during opening weekend, though. In fact, the Guardians were the only XFL team to not allow a sack. Jones turned into a punishing run-blocker at times too.

7. OLB LaTroy Lewis, Houston Roughnecks

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Anytime a defender can consistently pressure opposing quarterbacks, he's going to hold significant value.

Houston Roughnecks outside linebacker LaTroy Lewis put together a Defensive Player of the Week-caliber performance against the Los Angeles Wildcats, recording two sacks, two tackles for loss, three quarterbacks hits, a forced fumble and a defended pass.

Even when Lewis didn't get to the quarterback, the 6'3", 240-pound defender made his presence felt in the backfield as the Roughnecks constantly pressured Wildcats quarterback Chad Kanoff en route to a 37-17 victory.

Lewis, 26, fits in the old category of being a tweener.

The NFL listed him at 255 pounds during his time with the Oakland Raiders, Houston Texans and Tennessee Titans. The XFL lists him at 15 pounds lighter. This could be problematic for a 3-4 outside linebacker tasked with setting the edge and facing much larger offensive tackles.

As long as Lewis continues to flash with burst up the field, bend to turn the corner and continued polish as a pass-rusher, he could find a role at the next level as a sub-package edge defender.

6. WR Austin Proehl, Seattle Dragons

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One day, Austin Proehl will be the answer of an obscure trivia question since he scored the first touchdown in the rebooted XFL's history.

Minutiae aside, the route and his reception were quite impressive.

Obviously, the 2018 seventh-round NFL draft selection, whose father played 17 seasons in the league, knows how to sell a route. He sold the underneath route first before stacking the linebacker and getting vertical in the end zone. Proehl didn't have any problem securing the ball while being undercut by the oncoming safety.

"We practiced it. Shout out to my pops," Proehl said during the telecast (h/t Cameron DaSilva of USA Today's Rams Wire). "He's been running it since the Greatest Show on Turf back in the day. We just wanted to put it in. It's a great red-zone play, and we put it in, and we executed it as a team."

The 24-year-old target also became the first receiver to score a pair of touchdowns. His second score showed his ability to create after the catch when he took a 11-yard reception and tuned it into a 57-yard touchdown.

Proehl is undersized (5'9", 182 lbs), but he looks like a No. 1 option in the XFL, with the potential to take over the slot in an NFL offense.

5. QB Cardale Jones, DC Defenders

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There were MVP chants for Cardale Jones during the first quarter of the first-ever XFL 2.0 contest.

The tongue-in-cheek chorus acknowledged what's been obvious before play began: Jones is being positioned as the face of the XFL. The approach makes sense given the quarterback's affable personality, larger-than-life stature (6'5", 264 lbs) and distinct difference in arm talent compared to the rest of the league's signal-callers.

But none of it would matter if Jones didn't produce.

Fortunately, he rose to the occasion with an outstanding initial performance. The 2015 college football national champion completed 16 of 26 passes for 235 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

Jones, 27, played in only one regular-season NFL game nearly four years ago. He needs the time and reps to establish himself.

"It feels good to be out there for a full game and grinding out there with these guys after putting a lot of work in since November," Jones said during a postgame interview on the ABC telecast.

Some of the same old concerns were present. Jones can still be flustered when pressured, and he doesn't always see the entire field. Even so, the experience he gains now will be crucial if/when an NFL team is in need of depth at the game's most important position.

4. TE Donald Parham, Dallas Renegades

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A player with outstanding natural tools will get a look from the NFL, but those physical gifts won't guarantee a roster spot. Houston Renegades tight end Donald Parham is the perfect example.

A year ago, Parham looked like the type of project an NFL organization would love to develop. After all, 6'8", 257-pound tight ends are rare. The Stetson product also played basketball in high school, much like a number of successful tight ends such as Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates.

Instead, the 22-year-old spent rookie minicamp with the Detroit Lions before briefly winding up on the Washington Redskins' practice squad.

Two issues held Parham back. He didn't start playing football until his final year of high school. The Stetson football program compounded the problem by using him mainly as an oversized slot receiver.

Parham's size, length and athleticism remain impressive. At the same time, he isn't much of an in-line option, nor is he the quickest target as a detached receiving threat. As such, his chance to become a bigger part of the Renegades offense will help his stock rise over time.

Parham tied for the team lead Sunday with six targets, and he caught four of those passes for 40 yards. He showed an ability to work the middle of the field and the seam, which are vital to the position. Increased usage in all phases will once again make NFL front offices intrigued by his long-term potential.

3. WR Nelson Spruce, Los Angeles Wildcats

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Some receivers just know how to get open. The Los Angeles Wildcats' Nelson Spruce is one such example.

Spruce left the Colorado Buffaloes as their all-time leading receiver. He also set the Pac-12 Conference record for career receptions before Washington State's Gabe Marks surpassed him a year later.

Spruce quickly became a fan favorite with the Los Angeles Rams before they released him prior to the 2017 campaign. He bounced around multiple teams since then, including the San Diego Fleet in the AAF, where he finished second in the league with 38 receptions through eight games.

Now, he's the XFL's leader with 11 receptions during the opening weekend of play. The 6'1", 206-pound target also became the first receiver in league history to eclipse 100 receiving yards in a contest.

Spruce's skill set is obvious: He's a reliable slot receiver with glue-like hands. Wildcats quarterback Charles Kanoff targeted his favorite option 15 times against the Houston Roughnecks.

The NFL requires multiple different skill sets at wide receiver. The 27-year-old Spruce isn't going to run by anyone or out-jump a defender for a 50-50 ball. But he will run precise routes, create separation and give his quarterback an easy target to serve as a possible security blanket in crucial down-and-distances.

2. QB P.J. Walker, Houston Roughnecks

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Houston Roughnecks quarterback P.J. Walker found himself in the right place at the right time.

The search for quality quarterback prospects never ends. A franchise already might have an established starter, but depth is always an issue.

In the NFL, backups don't get enough reps, especially young signal-callers who need time to develop and build their understanding of the game. Instead, they're asked to take mental reps while languishing behind someone they may never get an opportunity to replace.

Walker bounced on and off the Indianapolis Colts' practice squad for three seasons before an opportunity arose in the XFL. The 24-year-old now gets to showcase his skill set.

Walker put on a show in the Roughnecks' 37-17 win over the Los Angeles Wildcats, finishing with 272 passing yards, 26 rushing yards and four touchdown passes.

"I was just out there having fun," Walker said, per the Austin American-Statesman's Suzanne Halliburton. "I was out there having fun embracing the moment. I was just flying around. These guys were out there flying around making plays. It was amazing just to have the opportunity to go out there and play a football game." 

As the game evolves, it better suits the 5'11" quarterback's skill set. Walker can deliver from the pocket, create outside of structure and provide a running threat. The chance to play for run-and-shoot guru June Jones will only help Walker's development and consistency as a passer.

1. S Kenny Robinson, St. Louis BattleHawks

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The biggest and perhaps most influential experiment in the XFL received little to no acknowledgement during opening weekend since it directly ties into the NFL draft process.

St. Louis BattleHawks safety Kenny Robinson is using the XFL as an alternative to playing college football.

NFL rules state a player must be three years removed from high school before being eligible to declare for the draft. Robinson spent two seasons with the West Virginia Mountaineers before he chose to leave. He originally entered the NCAA's transfer portal, but he later decided to play in the XFL instead.

"When I was leaving school, I had just found out recently that my mom had cancer," Robinson told USA Today. "(So) the decision was either go back to school and sit out a year, and then wait until next year to be drafted, or go to the XFL and help provide for my family."

Robinson made the best choice for his family. He'll now be eligible to play for the NFL after this season, and interest should in his services should be sky-high.

The 6'2", 198-pound safety earned first-team All-Big 12 honors as a true sophomore in 2018. He left the Mountaineers program as its active leader with seven interceptions. Robinson was relatively quiet in his first XFL action, though his five total tackles finished fourth on the team with fellow safety Will Hill.

But the 21-year-old defensive back is the most promising player in a league where he's surrounded by former NFL players.

"I just want to prove that I belong here and that I deserve a chance at the next level," Robinson told USA Today.

   
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