With less than two weeks remaining until the XFL season kickoff, the league has released official 52-man rosters for all-eight franchises. Former NFL and Michigan Wolverines coach Pep Hamilton is running the show for the D.C. Defenders, and he’s put together what looks to be a competitive roster. Here’s the breakdown of the team set to defend the Nation’s Capital in the XFL’s first season since disbanding in 2001.
It’s hard to imagine the Defenders not having one of if not the best quarterback duos in the league. Starting quarterback Cardale Jones led the Ohio State Buckeyes to a National Championship in 2015. In 2016, he was drafted by the Buffalo Bills, learning as a third-string mentee behind Tyrod Taylor and EJ Manuel. He played just one game with the Bills, before being traded to the Los Angeles Chargers in 2017. After a brief stint with the Seahawks, he was selected by the Defenders in the XFL’s first draft. Jones has proven to be a sound leader, and his NFL experience, despite limited playing time will serve valuable. Jones has a cannon for an arm and serviceable mobility. Backup Tyree Jackson has just as much of an arm as Jones, and unlimited potential. The former three-year Buffalo Bulls quarterback improved every year, showing improved accuracy, wowing many with his 6’7 frame. An undrafted free agent in 2019, Jackson was picked up by the Buffalo Bills before being waived in August. Jackson can throw a ball 70-yards with the flick of a wrist, and can make plays on the run. If he can continue to work on his accuracy behind Jones, he can transition well in a league where he won’t be under as much pressure.
The Defenders backfield offers good variety in style of backs, from bruisers to change-of-pace. All four backs on the roster spent on an NFL roster. NCAA FBS All-Time rushing leader Donnel Pumphrey has the most experience, being the only one drafted (2017), winning a Super Bowl with the Philadelphia Eagles that year. It will be an interesting battle to see which COP back wins out for snaps, with former LSU back Nick Brossette likely being the workhorse third-down back.
When it comes to wideouts, the Defenders might have the best receiver corp in the XFL, at least on paper. Leading the way is former Pittsburgh Steelers wideout Eli Rogers, who spent three seasons with the team. Behind him is former Arizona State wideout Rashad Ross. Ross bounced around to several franchises in the NFL, but showed his return chops with the Washington Redskins. In 2019, Ross led the XFL with seven touchdowns while playing with the Arizona Hotshots. The group is balanced out with high-potential players like former CFL wideout Tyler Palka and former LSU stud Malachi Dupre.
The tight end position is a toss-up, with former Western Michigan end Donnie Ernsberger being a wild-card. But the local talent shines the brightest with former Bowie State tight end Khari Lee. After floating around the league since 2015, Lee finds himself back in the DMV. Lee can be a valuable target for Jones.
Protecting Cardale Jones is the priority, and the Defenders have put some pieces in place to do just that. At the center position, Jon Toth and James O’Hagan are more than capable in getting the ball off and picking up on blitzes and looks from the front-seven. Both players are versatile enough to play guard as well. Guards Chris Brown and Rishard Cook can grow into formidable players with experience. The tackle position has some versatility as well, with former UTEP tackle Logan Tuley-Tillman being a personal favorite.
The Defenders’ interior push looks solid with former Washington defensive tackle Elijah Qualls & Ohio State tackle Tracy Sprinkle. The 1-tech, 3-tech rotation is sound, with guys like former Syracuse tackle Jay Bromley and West Virginia tackle Kenny Bigelow. The defensive ends are a question mark. The premiere pass rushers will be former Cincinnati Bengal Sam Montgomery and former New Orleans Saint Tavaris Barnes. It will be interesting to see how the group shapes up.
The most interesting of the linebacker group is former Buffalo Bills and San Diego Fleef (AAF) A.J. Tarpley. After several concussions in the league, Tarpley found success in the AAF. A solid coverage linebacker with good instincts, Tarpley can become a leader for the Defenders. There are several high-potential backers in the group that can shine, like Johnathan Celestin, Scooby Wright and Johnathan Massaquoi.
At the safety position, the Defenders may easily have the best group in the XFL. Led by NFL vets Matt Elam and Rahim Moore, the group is a cluster of talent and experience. Shamarko Thomas has six years of NFL experience, and Carlos Merritt shined in the AAF with the Atlanta Legends.
The cornerback group is just as promising, led by one of the fastest corners in the league – former Jacksonville Jaguar Jalen Myrick. Former AAF Birmingham Iron corner Bradley Sylve is another talent to watch. Former Northern Iowa corner Elijah Campbell is a physical corner with the versatility to play safety.
Former Boise State kicker Ty Rausa will be the leg for the Defenders. In 2019, Rausa spent time with the Massachusetts Pirates of the National Arena League. At punter is former Northwestern Wildcat Hunter Niswander. Over his last two seasons at Northwestern, he averaged 42 yards per punt.