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XFL 2023 Rookie Draft – Top 5 Linebackers to Shake Up the League

In the battle for the deepest position in the inaugural rookie draft, linebacker would come out as the easy winner. I had to make a lot of rough cuts and was psyched to get an extra pick when original list-maker Ryan Greenhagen got signed by the Philadelphia Stars. So, here’s the five that made it through.

Wildcard) KD Davis, North Texas

Let’s start with a player that, if it wasn’t for one moment of misfortune, he’d be in the midst of an NFL training camp.

KD Davis comes from the world of Texas High School football. He didn’t play for a powerhouse program, but his stats while playing safety were enough for 247sports to rank him as a 3-star recruit. He received offers from Memphis, Illinois, and Louisiana Tech, but chose to stay in-state, commit to North Texas, and switch to linebacker.

Rather than redshirt his freshman year, KD dove in head first and played predominantly on special teams. By the next year, he moved up to the starting role and held the job from 2019 to 2022. He led the team in tackles for all four years (the first UNT player to ever do so) and set the school record for most career tackles with 428. His senior year he notched 139 tackles, the second best season in school history and 5th best nationally.

Going into the Frisco Bowl, KD had been named 1st Team All-Conference USA, 4th Team All-American, and Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year. In the bowl game, KD made five more tackles, but it wouldn’t be enough to top Boise State. Even worse, in the final minutes of the 4th quarter, KD tore his ACL. 

KD will have to wait until September to get back on his feet and restart training. Even then, there is still nervousness as to whether he’ll be the same player even after he heals. To that I say, drafting him in a late round couldn’t hurt. ACL surgeries have greatly improved and the majority of folks come back from them no problem. Plus, with the XFL season starting well after his heal-by date, it will give him plenty of time to get back his old self and show the NFL what he can do.

5) Xavier Cullens, Memphis

Zay Cullens started out in Mississippi high school football as a three year starter at both running back and defensive back. During his time at North Pontotoc High School he excelled at both positions. As a running back, he made it onto 2nd Team All-State and as a defensive back the Clarion-Ledger named him one of the top 10 in the state. He was also named in the top 40 recruits in Mississippi by ESPN and 247sports. Memphis would get a commitment from Zay at the tail end of his junior year.

Over the first four years, Zay wouldn’t get many opportunities to start. In total, he started five games and appeared in 38 games. The thing though is Xavier isn’t the type to let an opportunity slide. He would collect 170 tackles, 16 tackles for a loss, and 8 passes defended. Teammates and coaches credit this to Zay’s strong intensity fueled by the uncertainty of life. Or, in Zay’s words:

“You see death all the time so you just try not to take life for granted and enjoy every moment…you got athletes dying every day, whether it’s a car crash or just overnight. So that’s a big factor. Time ain’t guaranteed for nobody so I try to use that because time goes by fast.”

Pretty goth for football, but his super senior year results speak for themselves. He led the team with 111 tackles, racked up 7.5 tackles for a loss, defended 5 passes, snagged 3 interceptions, returned 2 of those for touchdowns, and was 2nd nationally with 4 fumble recoveries.

Despite the “slow” start in college, he has absolutely proved that if he’s put in the game he will do everything he can to make a play. His intensity has been noted to cause problems on the field, such as a the half game ban he received due to a targeting penalty. Still, a good defensive coach can bottle that energy and redirect it with great success.

4) Jaylen McDuffie, Seton Hill

The next pick is a bit of an informational black hole. That being said, Jaylen McDuffie’s statistics make me incredibly interested to see how well his Division-II skills translate to the XFL. 

He played ball at McDonough High School in Maryland. During Jaylen’s time with the team, the school was the opposite of a powerhouse (a weakshed? lethargy-hut?). His last three years at McDonough consistently ended with the team going 2-8. Jaylen does seem to have been a bright spot on the team and he was able to successfully make the team at Seton Hill.

Jaylen dove in head first and became a feature of the defense in his freshman year. In four years, he would accumulate 55 tackles for a loss, 21.5 sacks, 6 forced fumbles, and a team record of 363 tackles. He also did a little kick returning, highlighted by a 40-yard punt return for a touchdown. 

In particular, it’s Jaylen’s senior season numbers that make him such an intriguing small school gamble. On top of 118 tackles, he scored a conference leading 21 tackles for a loss, and 11 sacks. These stats resulted in him being named 1st Team D2 All-American, Conference Defensive Player of the Year, and a finalist for the Cliff Harris Award.

While he’s not the fastest, strongest, or most well known option available, Jaylen is exactly the kind of player this draft is meant to find. Someone with a bit of risk, but a ton of potential.

3) Kyle Harmon, San Jose State

Let’s face it, that shift from teenager to adult life is the worst. We all deal with it differently. Some adapt to their new surroundings effortlessly, others get really into ska and coconut rum and just hope for things to level out. Kyle Harmon’s journey was a bit more complicated (and didn’t include a rocking horn section), but, in the end, he discovered his best fit.

During his high school days, Kyle would win his league’s Defensive Player of the Year in back-to-back seasons. He was named California 2nd Team All-State and received offers from fourteen schools. Between the FBS offers and three Ivy League invites, Kyle would commit to California Polytechnic. Two months later, Kyle would decommit and sign on at California. 

On paper, it was a choice that made a ton of sense. It’s a bigger school with bigger opportunity. However, Kyle felt very overwhelmed by the frantic nature of Berkeley. He said that his introverted personality just didn’t mesh with the campus and surrounding city. So, one week before the start of the season, Kyle left the program. He stated his intention to recommit to Cal Poly, but instead moved back home.

After a year out of school, splitting his time between digging trenches and clerking at a supermarket, Kyle enrolled at San Jose State. It would take a couple seasons, but in 2020 he became a full time starter. This was also the first of three straight years that he would be named 1st Team All-Mountain West. In 2021, Kyle became a tackling juggernaut for the Spartans, racking up at NCAA 3rd best of 133 tackles in ‘21 and 102 in ‘22. In those final years, he would also notch 13.5 tackles for a loss, 5 sacks, and 7 defended passes.

With Kyle, it’s obvious to say, you get an incredibly focused tackler. He uses the basics of technique to his advantage so that once his arms are around someone, there’s no escape. Also, if he’s searching for a chill place to call home, every XFL city, sans Vegas, would be a perfect fit.

2) Carlton Martial, Troy

Carlton Martial should not be on this list. He has the kind of accolades and statistics that should have made him a first round pick in the NFL. So, what’s keeping him from pro football fame and riches? He’s 5’8”. It’s not unheard of for the NFL to have linebackers that short, but going into 2023, Carlton would be a full two inches shorter than the next guy, Darien Butler of the Raiders.

Out of high school, despite being named Alabama 1st Team All-State and winning regional Defensive MVP, Carlton wouldn’t get any scholarship offers. The best he would get was a preferred walk-on offer from Troy. He would redshirt his first year and then start 2018 with the pedal on the floor.

He started for 9 games at middle linebacker and totaled 76 tackles, 8.5 tackles for a loss, 3 sacks, and 3 forced fumbles. He was named to the Freshman All-America team and the math wizards at PFF dubbed him the 20th best player on defense in the nation. When it came to stopping the run, PFF boosted him to 5th best. 

The following years would be more of the same. In 2019, PFF ranked Carlton the 3rd best defender in America. He was also the first underclassmen in over 20 years to end the year with more than 100 tackles, 15 tackles for a loss, and 3 interceptions. His junior season would see Carlton lead the nation with 113 tackles. Then in 2021 and 2022, he was named back-to-back to 1st Team All-Sun Belt and was a finalist for the Burlsworth Trophy. However, if any stat was to be the crowning achievement over all of this, it would be his career tackle total of 577. This set an NCAA career record, beating out the old career best by 32 tackles.

Yet, with all these records and accolades, Carlton wouldn’t get so much as a minicamp invite. He did get signed by the CFL Hamilton Tiger-Cats on May 14th, but would be cut in the last round of preseason. 

As a tackler, Carlton tends to go for the legs and feet, but in moments where he locks on with someone head-to-head, it can take a bit longer for him to bring them down. However, he does use this time to hammer at the ball to get as many fumbles as he can. He has made an entire career of being deceptively strong and proving multitudes of coaches wrong. He would easily be worth a 1st or 2nd round pick just to bring that fire to a team.

1) Johnny Buchanan, Delaware

Seeing as this is a linebacker list, we are legally required to end with the most traditional, Brian Urlacher-esque guy out there. Lucky for us, he’s also the best.

Johnny Buchanan came out of the New Jersey high school football world playing for the dominant St. John Vianney High School. He was a two way player focusing on running back and linebacker. In his senior year he totaled 1400 rushing yards, 17 touchdowns, 130 tackles, and 4 sacks. However, despite making 1st Team All-State, this wasn’t enough to attract FBS attention. Johnny would get offers from eight smaller schools, including the recruiting victor, Delaware.

Johnny played in a back-up roll for the first two years. In 2020 he became a starter and, for the next three years, bounced back and forth from 1st to 2nd to 1st Team All-CAA. While his play as a starter was consistently good, 2022 would be a huge year. He obtained career bests in tackles for a loss (8.5), sacks (1.5), and tackles (150). In fact, he would lead the entire FCS in tackles. This led to him making 1st Team All-American on six lists and made him a finalist for the Buck Buchanan Award, given to the best defender in the FCS.

But, much like high school, Johnny wouldn’t get many offers at the next level. He did get an invite to the Steelers minicamp, but nowhere else. The thing though is, while getting a metric tonne of tackles isn’t the most exciting stat, watching Buchanan’s play more than makes up for it.

Watching Johnny Buchanan is kind of like watching a horror movie. Every time a running back takes a route towards him, my body clenches in an impulse of “don’t go that way he’s there!” He plays with a bulldog attitude of latching onto the ball carrier and refusing to let go until he wins. He’s also a complete menace playing in the zone. That kind of tenacity has the capacity to make someone a star in the XFL and would be a wonderful gift to the fans of whomever picks him.

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