With the 2023 XFL Rookie Draft now complete, the eight teams that make up the league can now start to focus on how to continuing shaping their teams ahead of the 2024 season. After compiling the league’s best regular season record, the DC Defenders fell short in their bid to be crowned the XFL 2023 Champions. Due to the success that the rest of the season produced, DC watched as several key playmakers and stars for them get a chance at the NFL level. Jordan Ta’amu, Lucky Jackson, and Chris Blair are just several names that have moved up to the top football tier with good situations that could lead to them making the final rosters. While somewhat baffling, the Defenders, thus far, have not lost star running back Abram Smith to the NFL. With running back being deep in riches for a lot of teams, the NFL maybe a bit more reluctant to sign some guys at that position unless there’s an injury or two. The Defenders approach to this draft singled that they are preparing on Abram’s return, while revamping key positions that helped to the league’s best record.
While we didn’t get the draft results in real time, the way the XFL has them listed, one would assume that was the order they were taken. Each team had ten selections on draft day, with several others being claimed after the draft in the XFL’s version of undrafted free agency. The XFL is unique: they’re the only American brand football league who holds their drafts, or drafts, in the year before the next season. The league has also confirmed they will hold two other drafts, a total of three, later in the year: one after the NFL cuts and another in November heading into training camp. So, it’s definitely important to land these drafts properly to ensure future success for teams as the XFL looks to solidify itself as legitimate option for players who didn’t quite make the cut in the NFL.
Paxton Brooks, P Tennesee
Assuming that the XFL listed the picks in order of how they were taken, the Defenders started out with a special team players. Brooks is huge individual. Standing 6’6, which doesn’t relate to the position at all, Brooks averaged over 40 yards a punt in his first three seasons as a starter for the Vols. He has a solid leg but saw a decline in punting average his Senior year, which resulted in more fair catches. It was evident that the Defenders understand that in the XFL the field position game is extremely important.
Matt Carrick, OL Michigan State
Carrick is a perfect fit for the Defenders. He’s a big body with mauling tendencies on the inside. Carrick is exactly the type of athlete that the Defenders want up front to protect their QB and help Abram Smith find those creases to explode for big gains and touchdowns. Carrick struggled at times in pass protection at MSU, but with how the Defenders run their offense, it takes the pressure off the OL and helps those who struggle a bit to gain confidence in their abilities. The best thing about Carrick is that he’s older. Having been a part of the 2017 incoming freshman class, Carrick should have the experience out of college to be able to win a starting job immediately, as long as he produces the way the Defenders hope he does.
Alex Jensen, OL South Dakota
Another mammoth of a human being, Jensen stands at 6’7 – unlike his counterpart in Carrick, Jensen will better be suited to play OT. Despite his height, Jensen was actually a little undersized at South Dakota as he never truly tipped the scales at 300 or over. At the FCS level, Jensen was able to get away with it and use his quickness and agility to his advantage but he struggled at times against stronger and bigger Edge rushers. If Jensen wants to contribute right away, I would suspect that the coaching staff with DC will get him into a good strength and conditioning routine that benefits him and allows him to bulk up to match his tall frame. Jensen is another piece that comes from a perfect system to fit the DC scheme due to his ability to get to the next level in the running game and having enough agility to get outside the box to pull. If they can work on his footwork and pass blocking ability, Jensen could be a star in the making at OT for the Defenders.
CJ Johnson, WR ECU
The most intriguing selection made by DC came in what, by my best estimates, would be the fourth round. CJ Johnson coming out of his junior year was considered to be a Day Two draft pick of the NFL. Johnson chose to return to school. Once the spring semester hit, Johnson was absent from spring activities and there were reports and grumblings that Johnson had fallen out of favor with the coaching staff for reasons not disclosed and rumors were swirling that he may transfer. He ended up getting to campus in the late summer, and responded by putting up his best season as a Pirate. Johnson has ideal, prototypical size at WR. Standing 6’2 and weighing 220lbs, Johnson has the size and ability to take over games if he wants. The biggest questions is his commitment to the game and whether or not wants to be a star. With DC’s WR corps being heavily poached by the NFL, CJ Johnson is a great fit for this offense and has a chance to be a day one starter for them. Johnson was recently released by the Seattle Seahawks, so he has a decision to make: try to make an NFL roster or fully commit to the XFL and use that as a means to get back into the NFL.
Kaleb Oliver. LB Western Kentucky
Oliver is interesting prospect in terms of upside. His best season came in 2022, where he only had 42 solo tackles. But Oliver doesn’t play inside and that’s a point of emphasis for the Defenders is where can they get production from the LB spots? Francis Bernard was all-XFL in the middle of the that defense and the Defenders had pretty good production from the Edge positions. But Gregg Williams’ defense is about movement and being able to cover a lot of ground and the Defenders struggled doing just that during the Championship game, in which the Renegades exposed them. Oliver should help alleviate some of those issues with his ability in coverage. Oliver accounted for five turnovers, including four interceptions, in the 2022 season. It was evident with this selection that the Defenders see potential and way to help strengthen their weak spots on defense.
Jack Plumb, OL Iowa
Continuing their very obvious trend of trying to find quality OL to fit their scheme, the Defenders selected Plumb, out of the run-heavy scheme college of Iowa. Plumb is another massive OL that is little slim with his weight, but works perfectly into the agile, quick-footed style that the Defenders love. One of the hardest things about the spring leagues is finding quality offensive linemen to fill out your roster, so it makes perfect sense to use your first draft on trying to find young talent you can groom into becoming reliable for you. All three OL picks by DC were older prospects that fit into what they do without question. If anything, the selection of Plumb can sure up the right side of the OL, as that’s his best projected role with the team. Where Jensen has a bit more upside at the LT position. Regardless, all three OL are versatile and have a chance to play multiple positions, but Plumb could really blossom on the right side if that’s where he cements himself.
Bentlee Sanders, DB Nevada
The most intriguing pick on defense comes with the selection of Bentlee Sanders out of Nevada. Sanders, who is a bit undersized for an outside CB, was wildly productive in his last season with the Wolfpack. While his size could cause problems against bigger WRs, it’s perfect for a slot CB role. With the evolution of the game of football, the Slotback has become one of the most important positions in all of football. Sanders who is only 5’9 and 180lbs, had 80 tackles last season. That’s an amazing stat line for corner back and shows his willingness to get dirty and he’s not afraid to tackle. What’s even more impressive with when you stack those 80 tackles with 5 interceptions and 3 forced fumbles. Sanders is definitely not afraid to go after the ball and in a league like the XFL, that Slotback position is going to become increasingly more important.
Mohamed Sanogo, LB Louisville
Known to the faithful as “Momo”, Sanogo is a six year player with Louisville. While Sanogo battled injuries throughout his tenure with the Cardinals, he was productive when he was on the field. His sophomore year, he accounted for over 100 tackles. This year, however, was probably Momo’s most successful. The tackle numbers were down, but his sacks jumped, as he set a career high 4.5 sacks; he also recovered 3 fumbles. Sanogo is better suited to play inside as that benefits him the most and hides his suspect coverage ability. Luckily for him, Williams tends to only ask that his MLB run sideline to sideline and play a lot of zone, which probably leans more in Momo’s ability than asking him to be a do-all LB. With no word on Francis Bernard signing with the NFL, Momo won’t be asked to come in and contribute right away, which is a perfect scenario for him and the Defenders.
Ty Scott, WR Missouri State
Transferring from an FBS school to FCS school is usually a death sentence for players because the NFL tends to move you down boards due to “level of competition.” I’ve never liked that term because if you can play, you can play. Scott made the decision ahead of his junior year to transfer from Central Michigan to Missouri State. a move that saw him start getting NFL recognition. Scott impressed last season playing in 11 games and amassing 47 catches for 653 yards. He had an impressive 13.9 yards per reception, proving himself as a big play threat. The most impressive stat line for him is that the QB averaged a surprising 89.2 QBR when targeting the tall and lanky Scott. With Chris Blair signing in the NFL and having a good chance to make an NFL roster, Scott could fit nicely into that Blair-role of big play ability. If DC doesn’t get back it’s core of production at the WR spot, look for Scott’s name to become a household one by the 2024 season’s end.
Trea Shropshire, WR UAB
Speaking of big play ability, Shropshire has a career average of 23.5 yards per reception. No, read that again, not 2022 season, but CAREER average of 23.5 yards. That’s downright deadly. Shropshire slides into the same mold as Chris Blair and fellow draftee, Ty Scott. He’s tall and lanky and has the ability to take the top off the defense. All of that lead to the success of the Defenders season last year. If DC wants to repeat what they did a season ago, this draft class, but more importantly receiving class, is going to need to show up and produce. Shropshire has the ability but he needs to prove that he belongs. But like the case with Ty Scott, if Shropshire is able to duplicate just a fraction of that success, he’ll become a well known name amongst the football community by year’s end.
Overall, the Defenders did exactly what they needed to do with this draft. They addressed two of their weaker spots on defense with coverage players who aren’t afraid to be aggressive on the ball and tackle in the run game. They needed to address the WR and OL rooms and taking 3 players who fit perfectly into their scheme is smartest decision any team can make. While it’s yet to be determined if any of these guys create an immediate impact, one thing is for certain: the DC Defenders drafted for them to make an immediate impact and plan on making another impressive run to the XFL Championship game in 2024.