The XFL 2023 season is nearly over. The league will crown its champion in San Antonio on Saturday, May 13th. When the D.C. Defenders and Arlington Renegades square off at the Alamodome.
While one team will have all the glory to themselves when the smoke settles, the truth is that the entire XFL shares a crowning achievement when the season is completed.
400-plus players get a chance in the XFL this year to start or continue their dreams. The League of Opportunity opened a doorway that will lead to other doors being opened.
A year from now, some of the league’s players will not be back playing in the XFL, and some will return in the continuation of their pro-playing careers. Either way, it’s a victory for all of them that the league exists.
Some XFL 2023 players stood out more than others, while others showed early glimpses of a brighter future ahead. Seeds were planted from both spectrums for future success. That’s the beauty and the gift of the XFL’s return this year. The growth that comes in the aftermath of its existence.
Here is my All-XFL 2023 team. 30 players receiving the honors, along with some of the league’s best coaches and employees.
All XFL 2023 Team
QB: A.J. McCarron, St. Louis Battlehawks (2,150 yards passing, 68.8% completion percentage, 24 touchdowns, six interceptions
Honorable mention: Jordan Ta’amu (D.C. Defenders), Ben DiNucci (Seattle Sea Dragons)
A.J. McCarron was arguably the most efficient quarterback in modern-day Spring Pro Football league history. Pro Football Focus had McCarron as the highest-graded quarterback in the league. (80.8)
McCarron also set the record for most touchdowns by a QB in XFL history. (24) in nine games while completing nearly 70 percent of his passes and throwing for only six interceptions. His leadership as a defacto coach on the field also stood out significantly.
A.J. McCarron didn’t have an opportunity to be the lead dog in the NFL after doing nothing but win on the college level. The XFL afforded him the chance to be at the forefront again as a quarterback. And he delivered.
Ben DiNucci, who led the league in passing yards (2,671), deserves much credit for his prolific season captaining the June Jones ship in Seattle. Despite the high number of turnovers (18 in 10 games), DiNucci was unstoppable when he was on his game.
Jordan Ta’amu got better with each passing week this season. The 25-year-old signal caller was highly efficient and clutch for the 10-1 Defenders, not only as a runner but as a passer. He completed 62 percent of his passes, with a 14 to 3 touchdown to interception ratio, while rushing for 298 yards and three touchdowns. Finished as the second-highest-graded quarterback by PFF and posted the second-best big-time-throw-to-turnover-worthy play ratio (9-to-2) on deep passes. Ta’amu has evolved as a player and leader with his added playing experience.
RB: Abram Smith, D.C. Defenders (790 yards rushing, 5.0 yards per carry, seven touchdowns)
Honorable mention: Jacques Patrick (San Antonio Brahmas), Brian Hill St. Louis Battlehawks), Max Borgi (Houston Roughnecks), De’Veon Smith (Arlington Renegades)
The writing was on the wall that Abram Smith would be a superstar in the XFL. The first-overall selection in the XFL Draft by D.C. Defenders lived up to the hype. As the fifth leading rusher in the nation in 2021, all Abram Smith needed was the same chance to shine that he got at Baylor. And that’s what transpired in the XFL.
Jacques Patrick, a standout from the XFL three years ago, who has spent time with several NFL teams leading into 2023, finally started to break through later in the season after Kalen Ballage went down to injury. Patrick closed the season with 219 yards rushing in his final three games, 171 after contact, ten forced missed tackles, and four touchdowns.
Brian Hill was arguably the most well-rounded halfback in the league. (624 total yards in 8 games). A slimmed-down and heavily motivated De’Veon Smith ran hard all season for Arlington. It wasn’t always pretty, but he tied for the league lead with seven rushing touchdowns.
Jahcour Pearson (60 receptions, 670 yards, four touchdowns)
Hakeem Butler (51 receptions, 599 yards, eight touchdowns)
Darrius Shepherd (48 receptions, 519 yards, six touchdowns)
Lucky Jackson (36 receptions, 573 yards, five touchdowns)
Honorable mention: Chris Blair (D.C. Defenders), Josh Gordon (Seattle Sea Dragons), Juwan Green (Seattle Sea Dragons), Jeff Badet (Vegas Vipers), Blake Jackson (Seattle Sea Dragons), * Jontre Kirklin (Houston Roughnecks)
The XFL had several standout receivers, one of whom, if not being injured, Jontre Kirklin, would have been an all-league player. He scored five touchdowns in his first four games in the XFL.
Jahcour Pearson was an exciting player to watch for Seattle all year long. The best is yet to come with him. You get the feeling that the 4.2 diminutive speedster only scratched the surface in 2023.
If not for a highly crowded and talented Battlehawks receiving corps that went seven deep, Hakeem Butler could have been an even bigger monster than he already was during the season.
Darrius Shepherd came on late in the season; he developed a great connection with A.J. McCarron and was one of the most reliable players in the league. Shepherd’s route running and hand-eye coordination was top-notch.
Not having both members of the Defenders’ deadly duo of Chris Blair (524 yards, 22.8 yards per catch) and Lucky Jackson (573 yards, five touchdowns) on the first team seems like a criminal act. But you know the league had excellent receivers when Josh Gordon (38-540-4tds) didn’t make the list.
TE: Cody Latimer, Orlando Guardians (50 receptions, 593 yards, four touchdowns)
Honorable mention: Sal Canella (Arlington Renegades)
Veteran WR Cody Latimer found a new home in the XFL as an on-the-move tight end. Latimer was a matchup problem for opposing XFL defenses all season long.
Salvatore Canella had a strong season with 42 receptions for 415 yards. However, it felt like Arlington never fully maximized his skill set. It’s almost a crime that he didn’t score a single touchdown during the regular season. What might have been if Luis Perez had started the year with the Renegades?
C: Michael Maietti, D.C. Defenders (85.7 PFF Grade, Allowed zero sacks and only three pressures)
G: Liam Fornadel, D.C. Defenders (75.9 PFF Overall Grade, Second highest-run blocking guard among all guards, only one sack allowed on 326 pass-blocking snaps)
G: Jack Snyder, Houston Roughnecks (83.4 PFF Pass Blocking Grade)
T: Colin Kelly, Seattle Sea Dragons (Helped anchor a Seattle pass offense that led the league in pass yards and allowed only nine sacks all season)
T: Kyle Murphy, D.C. Defenders (Solidified blindside as the team was tied for fewest sacks allowed and led the league in rush yards per game with 1,408)
Honorable mention: C Alex Molette (Houston Roughnecks), G Dareuan Parker (Houston Roughnecks), G Liam Ryan (D.C. Defenders), T D’Marcus Hayes (D.C. Defenders), T Barry Wesley (Seattle Sea Dragons), G Mike Horton (Arlington Renegades), C Jared Thomas (Seattle Sea Dragons)
Some of the league’s best offensive linemen played in uniquely styled offenses, whether it was the pass-heavy attacks of Seattle and Houston or the run-dominant, high-reward RPO offense in D.C.
The entire list here is primarily comprised of those three teams.
DE: Trent Harris, Houston Roughnecks (League leader with 9.5 sacks)
DE: Delontae Scott, San Antonio Brahmas (Tied for second in the league with 7.5 sacks and 11 tackles for loss, highest-graded pass rusher by PFF 90.7)
EDGE: Pita Taumoepenu (Tied for second in the league with 7.5 sacks)
DT: T.J. Barnes (Highest graded interior defender by PFF 89.0)
DT: Tomase Laulile (Stout defender who was a part of the league’s top rushing defense, 78.8 PFF Grade)
Honorable mention: DE Drew Beesley (San Antonio Brahmas), DE Tuzar Skipper (Seattle Sea Dragons), DE Davin Bellamy (D.C. Defenders), EDGE Travis Feeney (St. Louis Battlehawks), EDGE Tim Ward (Houston Roughnecks), DE John Daka (Houston Roughnecks), DL Niko Lalos (Seattle Sea Dragons), DL Kevin Atkins (St. Louis Battlehawks), DL Trevon Mason (Houston Roughnecks), DL C.J. Brewer (Houston Roughnecks), DL Jack Heflin (Houston Roughnecks)
The edge rusher/defensive end category resembles the receiver position in the XFL. It’s very challenging to choose only a few players. The Roughnecks and Brahmas pass rushers were the best in the league.
Trent Harris, John Daka (second overall in 31 pressures), and Tim Ward were terrific when they were all healthy and on the field together.
The Brahmas DE duo of Delontae Scott and Drew Beesley were low-key two of the best players in the league, pound for pound. The latter came on late in the year.
Like San Antonio, Arlington had their fair share of struggles offensively, but their defenses kept games competitive. The Renegades had arguably the best interior tandem in Tomase Laulie and veteran T.J. Barnes. The latter might not get an NFL shot because of his age, but if this is his swan song. He went out on a dominant note.
LB: Jordan Williams, San Antonio Brahmas (League leading tackler 89, tied for first in tackles for loss, 12)
LB: Donald Payne, Arlington Renegades (Helped lead one of the league’s top defenses before injury, and then returned to help Arlington get to Championship)
LB: Tavante Beckett, Houston Roughnecks (XFL’s top coverage linebacker, 81.6 PFF grade)
LB: Terrance Plummer, Orlando Guardians (Ranked first among all XFL linebackers in overall PFF grade 84.3, tops in run defense grade 90.5)
Honorable mention: LB Carson Wells (St. Louis Battlehawks), LB Francis Bernard (D.C. Defenders), LB Riko Jeffers (San Antonio Brahmas), LB C.J. Avery (Vegas Vipers), LB Reggie Northrup (D.C. Defenders), Emmanuel Ellerbe (Houston Roughnecks), Willie Harvey (St. Louis Battlehawks)
Traditional off-ball linebackers who never leave the field are worth their weight in gold. The four names on this list are hard to ignore, and Jordan Williams, Donald Payne, Tavante Beckett, and Terrance Plummer were all elite difference-makers in 2023.
CB: Luq Barcoo, San Antonio Brahmas (League’s top-graded cornerback by Pro Football Focus 85.7, Led the position with 11 pass breakups and allowed a catch on just 52.8% of targets.)
CB: Michael Joseph, D.C. Defenders (83.0 PFF Grade, finished the season with four interceptions and two touchdowns)
CB: Ajene Harris, Houston Roughnecks (XFL leader with five interceptions)
S: Deontay Anderson, Vegas Vipers (Ranked third among safeties in run-defense grade (87.3). 52 tackles on the season, didn’t miss a tackle in his final six games)
S: Qwynnterrio Cole, Seattle Sea Dragons (82.5 overall PFF grade, Finished with the lowest missed tackle rate (6.1%) among safeties. Surrendered 12 catches on 26 targets, adding three interceptions)
Honorable mention: DB Tenny Adewusi (San Antonio Brahmas), DB Ranthony Texada San Antonio Brahmas), DB DeJuan Neal (D.C. Defenders), Tye Smith (Orlando Guardians), Nate Meadors )St. Louis Battlehawks), Lukas Dennis (St. Louis Battlehawks), Maurice Smith (Vegas Vipers), Joe Powell (Arlington Renegades), * Josh Hawkins (Arlington Renegades)
Luq Barcoo, Michael Joseph, and XFL 2020 returnee Ajene Harris all deservedly got their shine this season. They were stars in their respective secondaries.
Several quality defensive backs fell under the radar during the XFL season. The Vipers’ safety tandem of the league’s hardest hitter Deontay Anderson and late riser Maurice Smith (84.8 grade) was phenomenal all season. As was Dragons DB Qwynterrio Cole.
Josh Hawkins landed on injured reserve after only three games but was the best cover cornerback in the league at that point.
K: John Parker-Romo, San Antonio Brahmas (17/19 on field goals, long of 57 is all-time Lumen Field record)
Honorable mention: Taylor Russolino (Arlington Renegades), Dominik Eberle (Seattle Sea Dragons)
If you take away the start and very end of his season. John Parker-Romo had a perfect 2023 campaign. It’s a shame it ended the way it did, with him missing a potential playoff-clinching 53-yard field goal to beat the D.C. Defenders in week ten.
Taylor Russolino made a strong comeback to the XFL, nailing 16 of 19 field goals with a long of 56 yards.
P: Brad Wing, San Antonio Brahmas (Led the league with 16 punts inside the 20 and a 47.8-yard average)
Honorable mention: Daniel Whelan (D.C. Defenders), Marquette King (Arlington Renegades), Mac Brown (Orlando Guardians)
Brad Wing had plenty of work to do with San Antonio’s offense struggling all season. He punted a league-high 44 times. The long-time NFL veteran was one of the Brahmas’ best assets in close games.
Daniel Whelan and Marquette King were elite in 2023, and both players displayed tremendous hang time on their punts and limited returns by opposing returners. Mac Brown, who was a later arrival to the XFL, finished the season fourth in the league in punting average (44.8) behind Wing, King, and Whelan. But he is notorious for throwing two touchdown passes on fake punts in one season. Something that will likely never occur again.
Long Snapper: Thomas Fletcher (Seattle Sea Dragons)
Honorable mention: Rex Sunahara (San Antonio Brahmas), Antonio Ortiz (Arlington Renegades), Brian Khoury (Houston Roughnecks)
Thomas Fletcher, the Patrick Mannelly award winner as the nation’s best long snapper at Alabama, had a phenomenal season for Ty Knott’s brilliant special teams unit. The best compliment you can give a long snapper is to say that you forgot he was on the team. The only time a long snapper gets highlighted during a football game is when something goes awry.
Thomas Fletcher has a chance to be a ten-year plus NFL player. The XFL from 2020 has three long snappers who have been gainfully employed in the NFL for the last three seasons. Nick Moore (Ravens), Scott Daly (Lions), and Christian Kuntz (Steelers). So there’s a strong track record of specialists who have stood out in spring pro football, advancing their careers. Fletcher should be next.
Returner Of The Year: Darris Shepherd, St. Louis Battlehawks (League leader with 907 kick return yards (24.7-yard average, long of 80)- Kelvin McKnight, Seattle Sea Dragons, (As kick and punt returner, finished with nearly 1,000 yards combined, 983)
Honorable mention: Fred Brown (San Antonio Brahmas)
It’s hard to ignore how effective Darrius Shepherd was for St. Louis this season. He consistently gave STL favorable field position. However, Kelvin McKnight deserves plenty of shine as a punt and kick returner; he amassed nearly 1,000 return yards combined. So I am giving the dual nod to both players.
Head Coach Of The Year: Reggie Barlow, D.C. Defenders
Honorable mention: Jim Haslett (Seattle Sea Dragons), Anthony Becht (St. Louis Battlehawks), Wade Phillips (Houston Roughnecks)
Reggie Barlow of the now 10-1 championship game-bound Defenders is a no-brainer choice as head coach of the year. The winning college coach did a masterful job transitioning into his first pro gig as head coach. He surrounded himself with a strong support staff, and everyone was on the same page. Players and coaches alike.
Jim Haslett, the former NFL head coach of the year winner, deserves credit for rallying his Dragons from 0-2 to a 7-1 finish in their final eight games before falling to D.C. in the North Final.
Anthony Becht did an excellent job in his first crack at being a head coach. He put together a great staff and was an outstanding leader for the 7-3 Battlehawks. The same goes for the lovable Wade Phillips. Who, although things ended on a sour note for Houston, was a rock for the team all season.
D.P.P. Of The Year: Von Hutchins, D.C. Defenders
Honorable mention: Randy Mueller (Seattle Sea Dragons), Dave Boller (St. Louis Battlehawks), Marc Lillibridge (Houston Roughnecks)
The Directors of Player Personnel in the XFL all had an unenviable but fun task of building teams from scratch.
Former NFL player and personnel scout Von Hutchins knocked this entire process out of the park. He hit a home run in his first try at bat. Not only did he help put together a very talented D.C. Defenders roster, but he did so while catering to his coaches and their respective schemes. The latter is why D.C. had so much success in 2023, the collaborative efforts that strengthened the collective.
Marc Lillibridge and Dave Boller also had strong turns in 2023, putting together well-stocked rosters. So much so that Houston and St. Louis had highly coveted players around the league. In the case of the Battlehawks, they had nearly a dozen players they let go that were snapped up immediately by other XFL teams.
After a successful run with the forever undefeated 2020 Houston Roughnecks, the former NFL executive of the year Randy Mueller returned to the XFL and put together another strong roster in Seattle.
Assistant Coach Of The Year: Fred Kaiss, D.C. Defenders Offensive Coordinator
Honorable mention: Gregg Williams (Defenders DC), June Jones (Seattle OC), Ty Knott (Seattle Sea Dragons WR/Special Teams Coordinator), Ricky Proehl (Battlehawks WR Coach), Jim Herrmann (San Antonio Brahmas DC), Russ Ehrenfeld (Defenders OL coach), Dennis McKnight (Dragons OL Coach)
One of the best underdog stories that has flown under the radar in XFL 2023 is that of D.C. Defenders offensive coordinator Fred Kaiss. The long-time and successful HBCU assistant coach, who had his fair share of struggles earning respect and acceptance in that environment, seemed like an odd choice for the XFL as an offensive coordinator. But Reggie Barlow stayed true to one of his favorite lieutenants, bringing Kaiss with him to D.C.
In 2023, Fred Kaiss was reborn after several years away from coaching. The ultimate measure of any coach is the ability to put players in the best position to succeed. That’s precisely what Kaiss did with the Defenders. D.C. was very simplistic in the early going, but as the season progressed, the offense evolved, and players like Jordan Ta’amu, Chris Blair, and Lucky Jackson got better and better with each game. That’s a testament to the entire Defenders staff, but Kaiss deserves a ton of credit.
Top XFL Social Media Team: St. Louis Battlehawks (Lia Musgrave)
Honorable mention: Seattle Sea Dragons (Hailie Lynch)
The league of opportunity extends beyond coaches, players, executives, and coaching staff members. Many aspiring young professionals got their foot in the door of the sports league world with XFL 2023. For them, it can be a challenging, exciting, and frightening experience all at the same time.
XFL Newshub’s own Jay Nokes was excluded from honorable mention in this category due to downright pettiness. Just kidding, everyone on the team is proud of him. We are happy that Jay Nokes got a chance to live out his dream in pro sports as the San Antonio Brahmas social media manager.
The League of Opportunity provided so much of it in 2023. The XFL not only employs over 400 players but also hundreds of other employees throughout the league.
With the 2023 season winding down, The building from scratch part is long over. The blocks are stronger now than they were at the start of the journey. Here’s to 2024.
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