Defenders Director of Player Personnel Von Hutchins and the team’s coaching staff are tasked with restocking D.C.’s roster in the offseason. XFL teams are expanding their rosters from 51 to 90 as they embark on a pathway toward the 2024 season.
As of press time, the Defenders have seen five of their players sign onto NFL team rosters since the XFL Championship game in Mid-May.
WR Chris Blair (Atlanta Falcons), WR Lucky Jackson (Minnesota Vikings), P Daniel Whelan (Green Bay Packers), LB/DB Ferrod Gardner (Washington Commanders), and WR Brandon Smith (Arizona Cardinals).
So it’s no surprise that the Defenders addressed the position of DB, LB, Punter, and wide receiver during the rookie draft process.
Let’s take a look and analyze the 14 rookies the D.C. Defenders have added to their off-season roster.
D.C. DEFENDERS 2023 ROOKIE DRAFT CLASS ANALYSIS
The D.C. Defenders selected and claimed the following players in the XFL Rookie Draft process.
- Players who were drafted or claimed in the XFL Rookie Draft process will be placed on XFL rosters, with players who finished the 2023 season on active and reserve lists. XFL teams will hold exclusive rights with the players they select in the draft.
P/PK, Paxton Brooks, Tennessee
- Selected as a semifinalist for the William V. Campbell Trophy in 2022
- Averaged 42.33 yards per punt, which ranked eighth all-time in UT history, and 60.5 yards per kickoff.
- 126 of his 252 kickoffs went for touchbacks (50 percent), 32 of his punts went for 50+ yards, and 58 of his punts were pinned inside the 20.
- Career-long punt was 64.
- Selected to the 2023 NFL Combine.
Analysis: An overlooked aspect of the selection of Tennessee punter Paxton Brooks is his success on kickoffs. The Defenders had their fair share of issues in the XFL championship game in that department. Kicker Matthew McCrane and punter Daniel Whelan both had missteps in the title game. Even if Whelan returns from the NFL, Brooks has a shot to stick with the team based on that trait alone.
OL, Matt Carrick, Michigan State
- Played in 47 career games, making 27 career starts (11 in 2019, seven in 2020, and nine in 2022) at right guard.
- Invited to Green Bay Packers rookie minicamp after going undrafted.
Analysis: Matt Carrick had a lot of adversity in his college career, dealing with injuries in a six-year collegiate campaign. The 6’5, 320lb Ohio native was rated one of the best offensive guard prospects in the country by Scout.com (No. 35), ESPN.com (No. 42), and 247Sports (No. 49). The three-sport athlete with a wrestling background has a ton of maturity and toughness.
Defenders offensive line coach Russ Ehrenfeld worked phenomenally with raw but emerging talents like Georgia’s D’Marcus Hayes last season. Carrick is in a great spot to reach the immense potential he showed entering the college ranks.
OL, Alex Jensen, South Dakota
- A two-time all-MVFC performer
- Started 38 games for the Coyotes over his four-season career.
- Began his career as a tight end before converting to tackle ahead of the 2019 season.
- Named a team captain before the 2022 campaign.
- Attended the Miami Dolphins rookie minicamp after going undrafted.
Analysis: The Defenders add another intriguing offensive line prospect in South Dakota left tackle Alex Jensen. Originally a tight end, the 6’7 Jensen has transitioned favorably to the offensive line. The Coyotes’ team captain in 2022 is a high-character player.
Much like Defenders rookie draft pick Matt Carrick, Alex Jensen is an older prospect who spent six years in college. It’s part of the reason why accomplished talents like them were not highly sought out by NFL teams in the 2023 draft process. But with D.C., Jensen will have a shot to get valuable playing time and prove himself. Left tackle is not a great need for the Defenders, but it’s such a position of value that someone like Jensen is hard to overlook.
WR, CJ Johnson, East Carolina
- Four-year letter winner who started 38 of 46 career games.
- Two-time All-American Athletic Conference selection (2019, 2022).
- Hauled down 175 career passes for 2,849 yards (16.3 yards per reception).
- Set the ECU single-game receiving yards record against Cincinnati in 2019 (12 for 283 yards).
- Tied ECU and AAC single-game records with four touchdown grabs against South Florida (2022).
- Named Second-Team All-AAC selection in 2022 after setting career-highs in receptions (67), receiving yards (1,016) and touchdowns (10), and receptions per game (5.2).
Analysis: Although recent NFL signees Chris Blair, Lucky Jackson, and Brandon Smith all dabbled a bit playing on the inside for D.C., East Carolina’s CJ Johnson has more experience playing as a slot receiver, despite being nearly 6’2. Something he did extensively last season at ECU.
What stands out the most from CJ Johnson is his physicality. He wins with his size (225lbs) and has large hands (1018), and good arm length (3218). As a result, Johnson, on film, shows the propensity to break open field tackles and out physical defensive backs for the football. It’s why he was so productive in college.
In Fred Kaiss’s offense, CJ Johnson is an ideal fit because he can move around the formation and turn quick passes into long gains. Something that receivers Chris Blair and Lucky Jackson excelled at last season.
LB Kaleb Oliver, Western Kentucky
- 2022 Conference USA Honorable Mention.
- Played in 25 career games in two seasons at Western Kentucky and finished with 81 tackles for loss, 3.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, and four interceptions.
- Spent four years at Georgia Tech, where he played in 33 total games, accumulated 92 total tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, and two sacks.
Analysis: Defenders DC Gregg Williams loves versatile players who can play multiple spots. The 6-2 220-pound Oliver played strong safety during his time on the Hill but was drafted as a linebacker by D.C.
Like draft pick CJ Johnson, Oliver has a similar skill set to a player he is theoretically replacing in S/LB Ferrod Gardner, who is back with the Washington Commanders.
Oliver was a four-star prospect out of Tennessee who originally signed on with Georgia Tech before transferring to Western Kentucky.
OL Jack Plumb, Iowa
- Saw action in 46 career games.
- Played in 11 games and registered 418 snaps at right tackle as a senior.
- Started six of 13 games at right tackle and registered 483 snaps as a junior.
Analysis: It’s challenging to look at the above highlight and not see similarities to the Defenders’ offensive scheme and teamwork-styled line play. Something that was on clear display in the XFL’s championship game.
Iowa’s Jack Plumb showed a lot of the traits on film that make him a natural fit for DC’s successful combo blocking playset. The 6’7, 297lb three-sport athlete is a former high school tight end who shows surprisingly agile footwork for someone his size. Plumb has a chance to work his way into the Defenders rotation, especially in the team’s jumbo sets.
DB, Bentlee Sanders, Nevada
- All-Mountain West First Team 2022.
- Led Nevada in tackles (82), interceptions (five), and forced fumbles (three) while also racking up 5.0 tackles-for-loss.
- Averaged 17.7 yards over 19 kick returns, with a long of 37, and averaged 7.2 yards over 13 punt returns, with a long of 34.
- Played first four seasons at USF.
Analysis: Not everyone picked up in the rookie draft process is a lock to make an XFL roster. However, Bentlee Sanders’s high level of college production, combined with his versatility as a returner, gives him a favorable edge. To not only make a roster but become a significant contributor immediately in 2024.
The late bloomer went from a part-time player to one of the best overall players as a senior in the Mount West conference. It was quite the transformation that put him on the NFL radar.
As a result, Sanders received two NFL minicamp invites. Being an undersized safety at 5’9 didn’t help his chances, but his productivity in 2022 is hard to overlook. He also run a sub 4.4 in the 40 at Nevada’s pro day in March.
You hate to make this kind of comparison. However, there have been undersized safeties sporting the last name Sanders who have excelled in the pros. Former Von Hutchins teammate Bob Sanders at 5’8, is one of the greatest defensive players of his generation. Bentlee doesn’t quite fit the profile of Bob Sanders. Very few do, but it shows that sometimes height isn’t a deterrent.
LB, Mohamed “MoMo” Sanogo, Louisville
- Transferred from Ole Miss to Louisville for his senior year as a graduate transfer and led the Cardinals in tackles with 89, four and a half sacks, and a team-leading three fumble recoveries.
- In five years and 47 games with Ole Miss, Sanogo tallied 210 total tackles (97 solo), 12.0 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, four pass deflections, and two forced fumbles.
Analysis: “Momo” Sanogo is one of the more intriguing players D.C. has added in the rookie draft process.
The 6’1, 235lb four-star recruit and Maryland transfer has great versatility as an edge rusher (4.5 sacks as a senior) and in space, having experience playing middle linebacker and on the weak side. It’s that type of resume that provides D.C.’s defense with another movable piece that can moonlight at several different spots.
WR, Tyrone “Ty” Scott, Missouri State
- 2022 All-MVFC honorable mention, led the team with 48 receptions and 674 receiving yards.
- All-MVFC First Team in 2021, set school records for receptions (66), receiving yards (1,110), and receiving touchdowns (8).
- Played first two seasons at Central Michigan.
- Received rookie minicamp invite with the Kansas City Chiefs
Analysis: The Defenders hit on small school big-play receivers in putting together their 2023 roster. Missouri State’s Ty Scott has a similar profile to a player like Chris Blair. A late bloomer in college, the 6’2 Scott is a dependable route runner who has the physicality to win in closed quarters. It’s a trait that D.C.’s top receivers in 2023 shared in Fred Kaiss’s offense.
Scott has the ability to break tackles in the open field, using a lethal stiff arm in space. Watching his highlights from 2022, you see that he certainly fits the type of receiver D.C. covets.
WR, Trea Shropshire, UAB
- Two-time Honorable Mention All-Conference USA.
- Ranked third nationally in yards per catch (22.5).
- Ranks fifth all-time at UAB in career receiving yards (1,936) and receiving touchdowns (15).
Analysis: The Defenders have added an unconventional home run-hitting pass catcher in UAB’s Trea Shropshire. He doesn’t quite have the resume of the two receivers selected before him. But his 22.5 yards per catch is eye-popping. The 6’3 Shropshire is a big-play threat with natural ball skills.
Despite his propensity to make big plays, Shropshire, the former Blazer, doesn’t have blazing speed. (4.5). However, he has a tall frame and long arms, plus strong hands, giving him a huge catch radius. And has a knack for finding ways to get open.
D.C. Defenders Undrafted Rookie Analysis
OL Adonis Boone, Louisville
- Played for five years at Louisville.
- After being mostly a reserve over his first two seasons, was elevated to starting left tackle in 2020. Made the permanent transition to guard in 2001 and 2022.
- Boone played nearly as many snaps at left tackle (927) as at right guard (1,076) in his college career.
Analysis: Adonis Boone is a versatile player who has experience at left tackle and at guard.
This past XFL season, the Defenders had similar players on their offensive line who could play multiple positions. Liam Ryan and All-XFL lineman Liam Fornadel both played at a high level on the interior and on the outside.
Because of Boone’s less-than-favorable athletic traits (5.49 in the 40-yard dash), he’s more of a natural fit inside at guard than at tackle. It’s why after a promising start on the blindside, he was moved to the interior at Louisville.
In 2021 and 2022, The 6’5, 303lb Adonis Boone played 873 snaps at right guard. In 22 games, he allowed only one sack. On film, Boone shows good awareness and technique. D.C. has a loaded offensive line and are well coached; Boone looks like a great fit for the Defenders’ combo blocking style scheme.
DB Jahlil Brown, Central Connecticut State
- Appeared in 46 games during his five-year career at Central Connecticut State and totaled 179 tackles and two interceptions.
- A two-time All-NEC Second Team selection (2021, 2022)
- His hometown is Baltimore, MD, where he won the national championship in 2017.
Analysis: Jahlil Brown is a DMV Native from Baltimore, Maryland, who has the versatility to play cornerback, slot, and safety. The 6’0, 183lb DB can be an essential part of the Defenders’ secondary rotation last season.
In the XFL championship game, because of injuries, D.C. learned the hard way that you can never have enough defensive backs. Brown’s ability to play multiple spots will make him an asset. Brown’s a big-play hard, hitting DB who will fit into Gregg Williams’s aggressive defensive attack.
OL Warren Ericson, Georgia
- Was a key piece on the Georgia offensive line during his time at Georgia, starting 15 games over the course of his five-year Georgia career.
- A rotational piece on the 2022 Georgia team, which won the national championship and was a finalist for the Joe Moore Award, given to the Most Outstanding Offensive Line Unit.
- Started 14 games at guard during the Bulldogs’ historic 2021 National Championship season before moving to center in 2022.
- Received a rookie minicamp invite from the Denver Broncos after going undrafted.
Analysis: The Defenders continue to add interchangeable pieces to their offensive line. Warren Ericson is a guard/center prospect who has a strong pedigree as a four-star recruit who landed at Georgia. Ericson is known for his nasty demeanor as a phone booth blocker.
Ericson’s experience in the interior could help him stick as a rotational piece for D.C. The Defenders have already had success with an offensive lineman from the Georgia program (D’Marcus Hayes) and with players who have similar traits. (Liam Ryan).
TE Josh Falo, USC
- Played in 13 games with five starts (355 snaps) and caught four passes for 30 yards and two touchdowns in 2022.
- Recorded 18 catches for 246 yards (13.7 avg) with 3 TDs during his career at USC.
- Has appeared in 36 games.
- Attended New York Jets rookie minicamp.
Analysis: Josh Falo is an intriguing prospect. He was a four-star recruit at USC who never quite lived up to his billing due partly to injuries and a lack of playing time.
The 6’6, 248lb tight end and California native had very brief glimpses of production as a receiver in college. The former high school TE, defensive end, and linebacker was mostly used on special teams units.
The Defenders are taking a flyer on Falo’s upside and potential. And giving a new lease on life to his playing career. Perhaps Josh Falo can finally realize his potential. That’s what the existence of the XFL is all about for these players who are starting their professional careers.
Final Thoughts On The Defenders Rookie Class
It’s a tad bit surprising that the Defenders didn’t look toward specific positions like quarterback, running back, defensive line, or even long snapper. A position that TE Trae Barry handled well, considering his limited level of experience last season. But one that could use some competition in camp.
Perhaps the XFL’s specialists showcase with Nick Novak in late October will bring forth an added option at long snapper.
With at least two more XFL drafts taking place later this year. One in the fall comprised of mostly final NFL roster cuts and a later draft consisting of remaining pro-free agents. The Defenders may look toward other premium positions of need.
The XFL has already conducted two of its player showcases, with four more on the way in July, which will lead to an invite-only three-day XFL combine on July 25-27 in Arlington, TX. Players from those showcases will certainly be a part of the XFL’s upcoming drafts as well.
D.C. is in a unique position because it will likely be returning many of its key players from a year ago. However, there are several Defender players who could still get opportunities as NFL training camps start in late July.
All-League RB Abram Smith is surprisingly still not signed by an NFL team. But if he does latch on in the big league, the Defenders will certainly be looking at the running back spot. The same thing goes for league MVP Jordan Ta’amu.
D.C. has a great thing going with Ta’amu and D’Eriq King. But if an NFL team justifiably gives Jordan a shot. The Defenders and OC Fred Kaiss need to be prepared for life without him.
There’s a chance that many of the Defender players who did get NFL shots cycle back to D.C. But the positive byproduct of the XFL is if these players don’t. It further shows the value of the XFL’s existence.
As of press time, there are 30 XFL 2023 players who have signed on with NFL teams. Over a hundred players have received tryouts at NFL minicamps. The odds are against players making it, but the emergence of opportunities is a great thing. Something that the XFL’s new class of rookies is experiencing right now.
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