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XFL 2023 Rookie Draft Preview: 5 Top O-Line Talents

Prospecting out offensive linemen in a regular draft can be hard enough. The NCAA doesn’t keep stats on pancakes or sacks allowed. Aside from the surefire 1st round picks, you don’t get a ton of clips to study. If you really want to get a feel for each available lineman, you need to have access to every FBS, FCS, Division-II, and Division-III game from the past year. To say the least, diving into this post-NFL draft is massively daunting. Luckily though, there is enough out there to keep this list from becoming a variation of Oops! All Vibes.

Wildcard) Brett Neilon, USC, Center

Let’s kick things off with a guy who was already heavily underrated prior to suffering an awful injury. Brett Neilon had an incredible high school career. He was first team in USA Today’s All-California list and was the LA Times All-Area first team. Universities clamored over themselves to try and sway Brett to their campus. In total, he got 15 offers which included Michigan, Auburn, and UCLA. The ultimate winner of the Neilon sweepstakes would be USC. 

He would get his first start late in his freshman year and held the starting center role for the rest of his college career. Except for when injuries hit. In 2019 he strained his right calf. In 2020 he sprained his ankle. Then, at the Pac-12 Championship in 2022, Brett would rupture his Achilles. Prior to the injury he was projected to be a 6th to 7th round pick, but thanks to a six month recovery period and uncertainty over whether he will heal properly, he hasn’t been signed.

On top of the injury concerns, the main knock on Brett is at 6’2”/295 pounds he is smaller than ideal for the NFL. His shorter arms also make it harder for him to gain control after the snap. The belief is his physicality would keep him from winning against NFL talent, but I don’t entirely believe that. Playing for USC is still a high caliber of competition and PFF graded Brett’s final season at 90.2. The Achilles injury is a concern, but an experienced center can make or break a team. As a late or final round pick, Brett would be well worth the gamble.

5) Chris Toth, Aurora, Tackle

There is an argument in the offensive line scouting world as to whether combines and pro days are valuable in discerning talent. If for you, Pro Day numbers are the end-all be-all of professional success, then let me introduce you to Chris Toth.

Chris went the JuCo route at the College of DuPage. After two years he entered the transfer portal and got his one FBS chance as a preferred walk-on with Illinois. The thing though is that in his junior year, he would be buried in the O-Line depth chart along with the 3rd string emergency reserves. He would have two years to climb the ladder, but his odds of playing, let alone starting, would be low. So, he transferred yet again. Chris returned to the Chicagoland suburbs and joined Division-III Aurora University where he would be coached by former Bills wide receiver Don Beebe. 

He was an immediate starter for his final two years and collected a multitude of accolades. The Associated Press, the AFCA, & all named him a D3 1st Team All-American and he was the first ever player from Aurora to be invited to the Hula Bowl. While that is impressive, he has been noted for not playing with a high level of aggression and that his footwork would be an immediate project for the coaching staff. 

If you look at his Pro Day, he does seem to be an all-around physical talent. He doesn’t lead in any of the 40 yard dashes or vertical jumps, but much like a bard in Dungeons & Dragons, he’s really good at all the tests but a master of none. I don’t see anyone taking him before the later round, but he could easily be coached up into a workhorse tackle.

4) Ryan Walk, Oregon, Guard

Depth is a key component to any successful football team and when it comes to the offensive line, things can fall apart really fast without a strong next man up. With Ryan Walk, you don’t just get someone to fill in one position, but three.

Coming out of high school, Ryan would not be on the radar of any FBS school. He would bet on himself, go to Oregon as a walk-on, and made the team as a redshirt freshman. The next two years, he would play in ten games as a back-up center. During the 2020 Covid season, Ryan would ascend to the top of the depth chart and shifted over to right guard. In the shortened season he gave up only 9 pressures and not a single sack.

For his final two seasons he would start at guard & center and even took a dozen snaps at tackle. In 2021 & 2022, he would also be a top 10 semifinalist for the Burlsworth Trophy, which is awarded to the best walk-on player in the FBS. 

Then there’s his Pro Day. Ryan would end the day with more bench presses than any other Duck present. He ran a 4.58 20 yard shuttle that would have placed him 6th at the NFL combine and finished the 3-cone drill with a 7.63 which would have placed him in 8th at the combine.

Over his career, Ryan has been an above average blocker (score 70.1 via PFF) with a stronger ability to pass block than run block. His numbers show a lineman who works well within the unit and can be plugged into any hole you have and is well worth a mid-round pick.

3) James Jackson, South Alabama, Center

Coming out of Pascagoula, Mississippi, James Jackson would garner national acclaim as a ironman player starting on offensive and defensive line. He also lettered in power-lifting, which is just an incredible bonus with a lineman. He would be ranked in the top 25 of Mississippi recruits by ESPN & 247Sports and when Mississippi State made their offer, James would make them his school.

Having to pick one side of the ball or other, MSU would decide that James would be best suited as a defensive lineman. He would work some with the O-Line, but the plan was to make James a defensive starter. By 2020 though, he had yet to start and only had 8 tackles to show for two years of work. He would be moved from defensive line to center, would start 2 games, and have no guarantee of starting the next year.

Without a clear opening available, James entered the transfer portal. He would get offers from Houston, Florida International, and Syracuse, but ultimately, he chose South Alabama to be closer to his family. With James, South Alabama gained a starting center as well as a team leader who took the role of signal caller for the offense. 

Sports Illustrated would call James “…an outstanding rush and pass blocker” and his talent got him an invite to the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl. Across the board, his Pro Day numbers weren’t great, but if you’re on the side of that those numbers mean nothing to offensive linemen, then James would be a no-brainer pick in the 2nd or 3rd rounds.

2) Marcus Minor, Pittsburgh, Guard

In the 2017 recruitment class, Marcus Minor ranked as one of most sought after guards. He played for the legendary DeMatha Catholic High School during their most recent undefeated season and anchored their line during that run. He was ranked as a 4-star recruit, was in the ESPN Top 300, was named the 5th best prospect in Maryland, and 17th best guard in the whole nation. An avalanche of 24 offers followed, including from such hallowed institutions as Auburn, Florida, and Tennessee. 

Marcus chose to stay in-state and play for the Maryland Terrapins. His freshman year was mostly spent as a backup. After an injury to a starter in his sophomore year he would get his first chance to move up. Three starts later, the injuries began. Marcus would be knocked out for the rest of 2018, came back as a starter in 2019, but then missed the last two games of the season due to a dislocated toe.

He would return for the 2020 season, but only appeared in three games. His PFF numbers (ranging from a low 46.1 in 2019 and a high of 64.2 in 2020) don’t depict the dominating guard that everyone thought he would grow into out of high school. He had two seasons left, but if he stayed at Maryland his best case scenario was playing as a key reserve.

He entered the transfer portal and went to Pittsburgh, one of the original 24 schools to court him. At Pitt he got the opportunity to be their full time left guard for his final two seasons. He stayed injury free, was named 1st Team All-ACC in his last year, and was invited to both the Tropical Bowl and the College Gridiron Classic. Marcus also received an invite to Ravens minicamp. 

While the injury history can be a big worry, there’s also concerns that he isn’t as reflexive off the snap as teams would like. His night and day performance at Maryland and Pittsburgh shows though that he is capable of massive improvement and with the right coaching could reach the heights originally expected of him. I’d project Marcus to be a 2nd round pick who might slip into the 1st.

1) Alfred Edwards, Utah State, Tackle

To round this out, let’s finish with the lineman who has never stopped just being consistently great at what he does. From high school, to college, to I’m sure professional football, Alfred Edwards is a reliable rock in every line.

Alfred would play his high school ball at Redlands Senior High School and earned a fair share of regional acclaim from the California Interscholastic Federation and the Citrus Belt League. He would collect seven offers from western FBS schools and chose the Aggies of Utah State. 

Alfred would redshirt his first year and work with the Scout Team and was honored with the Scout Team Offensive MVP. His redshirt freshman season would see him take his spot at starting left tackle. Over the course of five seasons, he set a school record for 53 starts and was the first player in school history to start in 4 bowl games. In his senior year, he collected 11 pancakes, allowed only one sack, and got a PFF score of 89.9, the 4th highest in the nation for tackles.

At 6’7” and 325 pounds he is one of the largest tackles available. Add to that his 5.07 40-yard time (which would have been 8th best for OL at the NFL combine) & a 32” vertical jump (5th best) and you’ve got a quick, powerful mountain to keep your quarterback safe. One hiccup is that Alfred was selected in the 1st round of the USFL draft by the Philadelphia Stars. Case Cookus has been hampered by the team’s less than stellar line, so there is clearly a need for Edwards. If he’s not on the Stars by this point, then I think the XFL should follow suit and make him a first round pick as well.

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