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XFL: D.C. Defenders 2023 Season Preview, Odds, Players To Watch For, Projection

The 2023 XFL season has arrived. The D.C. Defenders kick off their season at Audi Field this Sunday, 8 pm ET on ESPN. The Defenders will clash with their week one opponent from three years ago, now Northern division rivals, the Seattle Sea Dragons.

Although many of the cities and team names, with some tweaks, have returned from the XFL in 2020. A lot has changed about the league we once knew since the Defenders’ Beer Snake went into hibernation three years ago.

Here’s everything you need to know about the new D.C. Defenders and XFL heading into the 2023 season.

XFL 2023 Divisions

The XFL North Division sees the D.C. Defenders paired with the St. Louis Battlehawks, Seattle Sea Dragons, and the Vegas Vipers. A unique alignment for sure. The Defenders, Battlehawks, and Vipers are back in the same division as in 2020. However, the Vipers have now thrown their chips into the middle of a Vegas table instead. The Seattle Sea Dragons join the northern group.

The Defenders, Dragons, and Battlehawks had three of the most energetic fan bases three years ago. So, these Northern teams likely provide the most challenging road games in the league. D.C. and St. Louis were a combined 5-0 in 2020, and Seattle’s lone victory came at home. Crowd noise, and the weather, particularly in the District, can be tricky for opposing teams to handle.

D.C. Defenders 2023 Schedule

The Defenders are starting their season with five straight divisional games. They open at home versus Seattle, but they won’t see them again until Week eight. It will be D.C.’s final divisional game of the season. By week five, the Defenders will have completed their home-and-home series with the Vipers (Weeks 2 & 4) and the Battlehawks (Weeks 3 & 5).

During the first half of the 2023 schedule, the Defenders will play three of their first four games at home. And because they are divisional contests, that only further heightens their importance. The Defenders have to defend D.C. at Audi Field against their Northern enemies.

XFL 2023 Championship Odds

Vegas (not the Vipers) and many different odds-makers online have set the championship probability numbers for all eight XFL teams. When it comes to XFL team futures, the odds-makers are all over the map. It’s not surprising, considering that this is a new pro football league with essentially eight expansion teams built from scratch.

That’s part of the fun of all of this. There’s no historical data to lean on, and everyone is starting from ground zero, including the experts and know-it-alls.

Depending on what sportsbook you lean upon. You could see a far-ranging projection of outcomes. For example, most sites like see the Battlehawks, Dragons, and Renegades as the top three favorites to win it all. Caesars Sportsbook, in particular, loves the Sea Dragons. At the same time, other sites are bullish on the Brahmas and the Roughnecks. However, the D.C. Defenders are primarily projected as a long shot to win the XFL championship on May 13th on ABC.

Arlington Renegades+500+500+450 +500
San Antonio Brahmas+550 +550 +500 +500 
St. Louis BattleHawks+400 +500+500+500
Seattle Sea Dragons+450+550 +550 +375 
Vegas Vipers+600+600+650 +500 
Houston Roughnecks+750+600 +700+800 
D.C. Defenders+650+650+700 +550 
Orlando Guardians+750+650 +800 +800 

Experience Matters

The criteria used by experts to determine which of these new eight pro football teams will be the most successful would be a fascinating study.

The time-tested approach to evaluating whether a football team will be “good” is their head coach/quarterback combination. It goes without stating that if you have Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes, you will win many games and challenge for a title.

At the end of the day, the ultimate measuring stick is a team’s quarterback and head coach combo.

The head coach/QB tandems in XFL 2023 are largely unproven.

In the long run, the unknown factor may prove to be a great thing. After all, this is a league designed to give opportunities to players and coaches who haven’t had the chance to shine. See P.J. Walker and the nearly two dozen XFL 2020 players who have played in the NFL the last three seasons.

There are over 300 players with NFL experience in XFL 2023 out of a crop of 408. Notwithstanding that, very few of the XFL teams have signal-callers with NFL or starting pro experience.

There are veterans like Brett Hundley in Vegas, Paxton Lynch in Orlando, and A.J. McCarron in St. Louis. That trio has 17 combined career NFL starts. Kyle Sloter (Arlington), Jordan Ta’amu (D.C.), Brandon Silvers (Houston), and Luis Perez (Vegas) all have starting experience in Spring Pro Football leagues. However, a significant portion of the XFL’s projected signal-callers are very young and have limited or no body of work as starters.

That doesn’t mean Houston’s Cole McDonald, an NFL draft pick in 2020, Arlington’s Drew Plitt, or San Antonio’s Jack Coan can’t take the league by storm. But they have to prove it first.

The uncertainty and inexperience equation extends to coaching in the XFL.

Half of the XFL’s head coaches are in their positions for the first time. Rod Woodson in Vegas, Hines Ward in San Antonio, Terrell Buckley in Orlando, and Antony Becht in St. Louis. The experienced head coaches consist of Wade Phillips in Houston, Bob Stoops in Arlington, Jim Haslett in Seattle, and Reggie Barlow in D.C.

The Defenders’ combination of quarterback and head coach, combined with the synergy and experience on the team’s coaching staff, gives them better odds of succeeding than most.

XFL Team Synergy

There will inevitably be a learning curve for all XFL teams in 2023. After all, without preseason games and just over a month of practice time, and it’s going to take time for players, coaches, and teams to gel.

However, some XFL teams have a leg up on the competition because they have coaching staffs with a history of working together. And in some cases, there are players who have either played for those coaches or with a select group of their current teammates.

The Arlington Renegades are a great example of synergy and experience. Bob Stoops has coaches on his staff that he has worked with in the past. He’s formed a team of successful assistants who have a history with Stoops and working on other pro and college teams together. Whether it be Jonathan Hayes, his brother Jay, Tim Lewis, Jonathan Himebauch, or Chuck Long. The Renegades are set up for short and long-term season success. They also have players who have past connections with their coaches and teammates, and that’s an advantage.

Because Arlington has proven coaching vets who have operated in this non-NFL pro league space before, they should be considered favorites.

Although, it’s hard measuring up to Bob Stoops’s coaching resume, or Wade Phillips or former NFL head coach of the year Jim Haslett’s. Reggie Barlow’s success as a head coach, albeit on an unheralded level, can not be ignored.

The Ideal XFL Head Coach

At Alabama State and Virginia State, respectively. Over 13 collegiate seasons, Reggie Barlow has a winning record of 83-58.  As head coach at Virginia State, he led the Trojans to their first undefeated regular season in program history in 2017, earning Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association coach of the year honors.

You could make a strong argument that because of his specific head coaching background, where he didn’t have the benefit of multi-star recruits or elite funding, Reggie Barlow is best suited to get the most out of XFL players. At the same time, this is Barlow’s first go-round as a pro football head coach, and he’s also getting an opportunity to coach a roster loaded with NFL-ready players who have been in the big league or been right on the outer edges.

The Defenders have over 40 players with varying degrees of NFL experience. Some were on NFL teams in 2022. During training camp, the season, and at year’s end, finishing up on NFL practice squads.

Barlow, a former NFL pro bowl player, has paid his dues as first a scout and then on the coaching level, and as a result, has paid it forward to the players and coaches who have joined him on his professional coaching journey. Six of the ten coaches on Barlow’s D.C. staff have worked with or played under him. Most notably, his offensive coordinator, Fred Kaiss, who has regularly coordinated some of the nation’s top rushing attacks under Barlow.

That synergy being carried over into the XFL is an advantage for the Defenders.

Reggie Barlow recruiting long-time NFL coach Gregg Williams to lead his defense was one of the best hires by any head coach in the XFL. Many followers of Barlow, or the current version of the XFL, didn’t see that one coming, and it blindsided most like an aggressive Williams defense.

Gregg Williams’s experience in the big time is an invaluable asset for D.C. For not only the team’s defensive players but its coaches as well. The 40-year coaching veteran has spent over three decades coaching in the NFL. That’s quite the learning tree to sit under. Coaches like former player Jamie Sharper should benefit from the wealth of knowledge.

The XFL is a league of opportunity that extends beyond the players and coaches. Highly thought of, Defenders Director Of Player Personnel Von Hutchins, a long-time NFL player and scout, is getting a chance to put his own pro team together for the first time. He has worked in lockstep with Reggie Barlow’s staff to find players ideally suited for their systems.

Former players like Reggie Barlow, who have transitioned to the next stage of their football careers, are in a league that will help many young players start and restart their playing journeys.

Barlow will keep paying it forward by selling his team on his family concept.

As Barlow told writer Josh Lewin in his North Division preview.

Reggie Barlow: “We’ve cast the net and found guys that fit this league, guys that had former NFL experience… guys who deserve an opportunity to play. We talk about the acronym ‘FAMILY’ and it’s “Forget About Me, I Love You.” Care about your teammates, be smart and know we’re gonna need each other.  That’s probably one of the hardest things to get them to know, that ‘hey, now we are the DC Defenders.”

Ten D.C. Defenders Players To Watch For During The 2023 XFL Season

QB Jordan Taamu – One of XFL 2020’s best quarterbacks for St. Louis, was a genuine pro football rookie three years ago. Arriving straight out of Ole Miss, onto the Houston Texans roster, before landing as a Battlehawk in 2019.

Back in 2020, when Ta’amu led the XFL in completion percentage. He ran a simplified run-pass-option-based offense under Jonathan Hayes and Chuck Long. His first five pro starts in the XFL landed him in the NFL with four teams in six separate stints. But he couldn’t break through as anything more than a back-end practice squad player.

In 2022, The 6’3, 220lb Ta’amu got back to playing again in Todd Haley’s pro-style offense with the Tampa Bay Bandits. In the USFL, Jordan Ta’amu started ten games and led the league in pass yards and touchdowns. He was also ninth in the league in rushing with 365 yards.

Still only 25 years old, Ta’amu’s 15 combined pro starts in two different styled offenses should help him continue to evolve his game.

RB Abram Smith — The Big 12 standout at Baylor was the first pick of the XFL draft. Abram Smith was the fifth-rusher in the nation in 2021. After a record-setting final collegiate season where he rushed for a school record of 1,601 yards and twelve touchdowns. The Defenders’ staff is high on their backfield depth, and Ryquell Armstead is someone to watch closely. But there’s a reason why they selected the 5’11 221 pound Texas product, Smith, first overall.

WR Jequez Ezzard– — Jequez Ezzard is another pro football rookie, just like Abram Smith, who is coming off high-end productivity in college. The Sam Houston State star was a first-team All-WAC wide receiver and returner on the FCS level. Ezzard is a big play waiting to happen. The 5’9 dynamo and Howard University took the FCS by storm for two seasons at Sam Houston State.

Ezzard is a big play waiting to happen. He averaged over 26 yards per reception for Howard in back-to-back seasons and then averaged 22.7 in 2020 with Sam Houston State. His career average of 22.4 yards per reception is a tantalizing stat, as are his 33 TDs on 154 receptions. He also scored two touchdowns on punt returns in his collegiate career.

C Michael Maietti – The first-team All-SEC, Associated Press, USA Today, and Pro Football Focus center at Missouri doesn’t have prototypical pro tools at only 6’1 290. But it’s hard to argue with his production level at the highest tier of college football. The Defenders have several talented young offensive linemen in their trenches. But Maietti stands out.

WR/RB Pooka Williams — The two-time All-Big 12 player out of Kansas can be as electrifying as teammate Jequez Ezzard. And will likely see play at multiple positions. The 4.3 40 speedster should be fun to watch in open space on offense and special teams.

Edge Rusher Davin Bellamy– — The first-team All-USFL pass rusher, Davin Bellamy should be one of the XFL’s best veteran pass rushers. Gregg Williams figures to be multiple, and Bellamy should be moved all over the defensive formation.

LB/S Ferrod Gardner — The Louisiana Ragin’ Cajun standout has superstar potential as a jack of all trades defender for D.C. Gardner finished the 2022 NFL season on the Washington Commanders roster.  Gardner is only 6’1 215lbs, so he doesn’t fit the standard prototypical size of a pro linebacker. But he is a great tackler in open space, and brings added juice as a blitzer. With multiple XFL teams lining up in spread formations. Gardner is the type of player who doesn’t have to leave the field.

CB Michael Joseph – The Cliff Harris Award winner as the nation’s top-small college defensive player at the University of Dubuque has one of the more unique backstories of any player in the XFL. He defied the odds as a no-star recruit coming out of high school, who made it to the NFL and played three seasons with the Chicago Bears. The 6’1, 190lb cornerback has the ideal profile of a press man corner in Gregg William’s aggressive scheme. The 27 year old will finally get an extended opportunity to play in the pros.

LB Francis Bernard — The first-team All-Pac 12 linebacker spent two seasons in the NFL with the Dallas Cowboys. The Utah standout doesn’t have elite traits physically but he is a hard hitting player with a tremendous motor. The former all-state RB in high school has great recognition skills on defense because of that background. With Jamie Sharper’s tutelage, Bernard can mature as a leader and linebacker.

DB Kentrell Brice – In a league filled with burgeoning players in their early twenties. Veteran safety Kentrell Brice has the potential to be a leader of the pack because of his experience. The well-traveled 28-year old strong safety has 14 career NFL starts under his belt. Although, Brice is a hard hitter who can play in box, he has elite athleticism. He has 4.4 timed speed with a 42-inch vertical leap. It would not be shocking if he was one of the league’s best defensive backs.

2023 D.C. Defenders Season Projection

The Defenders check off a lot of boxes heading into the 2023 XFL season. D.C. has a good mix of young talent with upside and proven veterans throughout their roster. Plus they have the necessary ingredients of a cohesive coaching staff and a solid quarterback room.

Every team in the XFL is starting off from square one. However, the Defenders launch point seems stronger than others.

The North Division should be very competitive. Most will give Seattle the edge because of their seasoned coaching staff. Vegas and St. Louis have plenty of talent, particularly at the receiver position and seem to have stable quarterback situations.

However, based on their roster construction and team make up. I think the Defenders will be a playoff team. You hate to put too much stock into one game, but the home opener at Audi Field for D.C. is a must win against Seattle.

No matter what the result of D.C’s game with Seattle is on Sunday, the fact that it’s happening is a victory for the entire football ecosystem.

The XFL 2020 season abruptly ended in nightmarish fashion. The league of dreams reawakens this weekend.

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I am a pro football writer who has extensively covered and reported on multiple leagues over the years. I started covering the XFL back in 2001. You can follow me on Twitter @byMikeMitchell

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