On July 28th, the Houston Roughnecks added eleven players to their roster through a “rights claim” draft. This draft had not been announced to the public, and the picks were later released through the official XFL transaction page. It’s important to note the distinction between “rights claim” and “signing,” since the two often get confused in this space.
All the players listed below had their rights assigned to the Roughnecks specifically, but they are not under contract with the team. Therefore, it is not guaranteed these players will suit up in the XFL, but there are some that have shown interest. Without further ado, let’s take a look at these potential prospects for 2024.
Tavon Austin, WR, West Virginia
There is not much of an introduction needed here, as Tavon Austin is a name recognized across the football community. The former do-it-all star at West Virginia became increasingly popular due to his Senior season highlight reel, which currently sits at 22 million views on YouTube since being uploaded in March of 2013.
Austin was selected eighth overall in the 2013 NFL draft by the St. Louis Rams. He had a promising first year, being named to the PFWA All-Rookie Team. However, his production would fluctuate over the rest of his time in the NFL, and things were never the same for Austin after he recorded career highs in catches (58) and receiving yards (509) in 2016.
Despite appearing in all 16 games for the Rams in 2017, Austin was barely used outside of the run game (part of which can be blamed on a fumbling issue), and he was traded to the Dallas Cowboys prior to 2018. Austin would go on to spend two seasons with the Cowboys, but only appeared in 21 out of a possible 32 regular season games. His last true opportunity came with the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2021, where he had somewhat of a career renaissance.
Most recently, Austin was with the Buffalo Bills in 2022, but didn’t make it past the practice squad. Even though he will be turning 34 during the 2024 XFL season, Austin has shown he still has enough gas left in the tank for one more run. There were previous discussions regarding Austin joining the Roughnecks during their 2023 season, so the odds of him coming to the team are higher than many likely believe.
Jermaine Carter, LB, Maryland
Carter is another player who has spent significant time at the NFL level, initially being selected by the Carolina Panthers in the fifth round (161st overall) of the 2018 draft. He spent four seasons with the Panthers, appearing in all 65 regular season games through 2021. His final year in Carolina happened to be the most productive, as he recorded career highs in total tackles (88) and solo tackles (38). In 2022, Carter signed with the Kansas City Chiefs, but was released during final roster cuts. He later joined the Cleveland Browns’ practice squad and was elevated for seven games, albeit with a steep drop-off in production (16 total tackles).
Most recently, Carter was signed and let go by the Houston Texans in the span of a week. Given that Carter went to Maryland and is familiar with some of the current Roughnecks players and coaches, he should have no problem fitting in for the 2024 season.
Parker Ferguson, OL, Air Force
Ferguson was a highly-graded tackle/guard prospect out of the Air Force Academy, starting on the offensive line for three seasons and earning All-Mountain West First Team honors as a Senior. He was signed by the New York Jets as an undrafted free agent in 2021, but was placed on injured reserve before the regular season. In 2022, Ferguson was a member of the Atlanta Falcons’ practice squad, and was picked up by the Denver Broncos later in the year. Most recently, Ferguson signed a reserve/futures deal with the Broncos for 2023, but was released in May to make room for undrafted free agent additions.
Gavin Heslop, CB/WR, Stony Brook
Although Heslop is listed as a wide receiver on the Roughnecks roster, his previous playing experience at both the collegiate and professional level has been at cornerback. While clarification should come soon, there is no denying Heslop is an intriguing player one way or another. The former Stony Brook (FCS) standout was a disruptor in the secondary, breaking up 30 passes over the course of his career. As a Senior in 2019, Heslop recorded 8.5 tackles for loss, 3 forced fumbles, and 3 fumble recoveries.
He signed with the Seattle Seahawks as an undrafted free agent in 2020, appearing in three games (mostly on special teams) over the course of two seasons. Most recently, Heslop spent time with the New York Giants in their training camp last year, and was later added to the Carolina Panthers’ practice squad.
Joshua Kalu, SAF, Nebraska
Roughnecks defensive coordinator Brian Stewart coached Kalu at Nebraska for two of his four years, so the familiarity aspect comes into play here again. The Houston native had his best collegiate seasons while playing for Stewart, recording a combined 141 tackles, 18 pass breakups, and 4 interceptions between 2015 and 2016.
After going undrafted in 2018, Kalu signed with the Tennessee Titans, bouncing between the active roster and practice squad over the course of his rookie campaign. He wouldn’t record consistent playing time until 2020, when he appeared in 15 games and forced a fumble. In 2021, Kalu signed with the New York Giants, but was placed on season-ending injured reserve after tearing his pectoral muscle in the first preseason game. He returned to the Titans in 2022 and had the best year of his career, recording 42 total tackles, 5 pass breakups, and an interception.
Forrest Merrill, DL, Arkansas State
Merrill was a three-year starter at Arkansas State, with his most productive seasons being in 2018 and 2020. Despite suffering a season-ending injury six games into his 2019 campaign, Merrill still recorded 4.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. In 2021, he signed with the Los Angeles Chargers as an undrafted free agent, and appeared in four games as a rookie. Most recently, Merrill joined the Seattle Seahawks in May, but lasted just over two weeks with the team before being released.
Scott Nelson, SAF, Wisconsin
Nelson only appeared in 10 games during his first two seasons at Wisconsin, and when he was finally ready for full action, the 2020 season was shortened due to COVID-19. In just 6 games, Nelson was still able to impress, recording 4 tackles for loss, 4 pass deflections, 2 interceptions, and a sack. He appeared in all 13 games in 2021, recording 60 total tackles, 7 pass deflections, 3.5 tackles for loss, and an interception. Nelson signed with the Seattle Seahawks as an undrafted free agent in 2022, and would later spend time with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Roderick Perry, DT, Illinois
Perry played six seasons of college football, the first four at FCS South Carolina State (2016-2019) and the last two at Illinois (2020-2021). His final year at South Carolina State allowed him to move up to the Power 5 level, as he recorded 14.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. At Illinois, Perry logged 43 total tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, and 4 sacks across 17 games. He signed with the Cleveland Browns as an undrafted free agent in 2022, and appeared in two games. Currently, Perry is fighting for a roster spot with the Seattle Seahawks, and will look to get more NFL reps through the preseason.
Wyatt Ray, OLB, Boston College
Ray played four seasons of NCAA football for the Boston College Eagles (2015-2018), earning All-ACC Third Team honors as a Senior. That Senior campaign was highly productive for Ray, who recorded 44 total tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, and 9 sacks. After signing with the Cleveland Browns as an undrafted free agent in 2019, Ray has spent time with several NFL teams, including the Houston Texans, Buffalo Bills, New York Jets, Tennessee Titans (two stints), Cincinnati Bengals, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Denver Broncos. His most successful stretch in the NFL came during the 2021 season, when he appeared in 15 games for the AFC champion Cincinnati Bengals.
Chris Steele, CB, USC
Steele played three seasons of college football for the USC Trojans, and like many players on this list, was most productive as a Senior. In 2021, Steele recorded 33 total tackles, 5 pass breakups, 2 tackles for loss, 2 interceptions, 1 sack, and 1 forced fumble. He was signed by the Pittsburgh Steelers as an undrafted free agent in 2022, and is now under contract with the Seattle Seahawks. Steele will participate in Seahawks training camp with Roderick Perry, another player with rights claimed by the Roughnecks. Both are now on Houston’s reserve list as a result.
Derrek Tuszka, OLB, North Dakota State
Tuszka, the final player on this list, is the third NFL draft pick that the Roughnecks acquired rights to. He was selected in the seventh round (254th overall) of the 2020 draft by the Denver Broncos after an outstanding five-year career at North Dakota State. During his time with the Bison, Tuszka won four FCS national titles and was the Missouri Valley Football Conference (MVFC) Defensive Player of the Year in 2019. After appearing in nine games for the Broncos as a rookie, Tuszka found more success in 2021 when he joined the Pittsburgh Steelers, recording 18 tackles and two sacks in 15 games. Most recently, Tuszka split time in 2022 between the Tennessee Titans and Los Angeles Chargers, ultimately logging 16 tackles on the season.
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