The name the Vegas Vipers is supposed to be intimidating, yet the Vipers in 2023 looked more like a bad joke, than intimidating at all. In fact, the Vipers were just one win from holding the worst record in the XFL. The clock management needed work, the play calling looked terrible, and most of all it looked as if Rod Woodson was losing his patience with losing by the end of the year.
This would end up reflected by the players that NFL teams signed. Only one player made it back on to an NFL roster after playing in Vegas, tight end Brandon Dillon. The biggest news coming from Vegas camp is the fact that the Vipers and Head Coach Rod Woodson have parted ways. The Vipers so far are the only team to lose their head coach, and it feels like he will likely be the only one to leave.
This however created a unique scenario where the Vipers were drafting players for 2024 without a Head Coach in place to help weigh in on these picks. Joey Clinckscales oversaw this draft class with the help of the assistant coaches on staff. It will be interesting to see how they address their head coaching position especially if the new Head Coach Decides he wants to bring in his own guys to handle the assistant coaching positions. Names like Jay Gruden, Pep Hamilton, Cris Dishman, and June Jones have either been mentioned, or have made it clear they have interest in the position.
The longer this hiring takes, the more questions open up about the player acquisition process without a head coach in place to make sure these players will mesh with the schemes he wants to bring in. Here’s to hoping the current Los Angeles Rams offensive consultant Jay Gruden is truly a candidate, and accepts an offer to become the next head coach. Perhaps he can even pull double duty, and still consult with the Rams in the XFL off-season. It would be a dream come true to many fans who were huge fans of Gruden in the AFL either as a player or coach having won four Arena Bowls. He then saw his next chance in the United Football League the last spring football league to complete more than one season. He is essentially the poster child for succeeding as a coach coming out of these alternative football leagues.
Draft Class as a Whole
The Vegas Vipers selected 10 players on draft day, and then claimed the rights to three more players. Including one that was drafted by the Philadelphia Stars of the USFL. They loaded up on offensive line help knowing no matter who they hire as the head coach, he will need all the help he can get in that department to improve upon a unit that gave up 25 sacks, putting them in the middle of the pack, however only the Defenders, and Sea Dragons managed under 18 sacks per game, and only 3 teams in the league averaged less than 2 sacks per game. Offensive line help can be hard to find, which is why we see the Vipers loading up in this area. Chances are not all of these five players will wear an XFL jersey.
Areas of Need
The Vipers need to improve in many areas, but most of all they need to develop a run game and fast. By the end of the season the Vipers had 913 yards rushing, but averaged just 3.8 yards per carry, which was a dramatic improvement over the number that they had held early on in the season. Eventually they began to find combinations that worked in the run game. This led them away from starting Rod Smith, and moved them toward starting John Lovett, however every back on the roster averaged 3.8 yards per carry or less, with the quarterbacks left to pick up some of the slack. To put this into perspective, in an 8 team league their top rusher ranked ninth, with the Jordan Ta’amu racking up more rushing yards this season than any single running back for Vegas. Smith and Lovett ranked 9th and 13th respectively.
Giving up 25 sacks in just ten games, and averaging only 3.8 yards per carry, there is obviously work to be done on this offensive line. They now hold the rights to 15 linemen; ten on the roster five rookies, with two more draft classes to go later this summer. Something tells me there will be a lot of turnover at this position group heading into 2024.
Given the larger rosters featured in the XFL, I could see Vegas carrying as many as 12 offensive linemen split between their practice squad and active roster. This is a very high number, with some alternative league teams opting to carry as little as 7 offensive linemen relying on depth pieces that can play multiple positions. This will be one group that is interesting to watch this season.
The Vipers need to figure out how to finish drives in the end-zone in 2023. The Vipers scored a total of 24 touchdowns, adding six 1 point tries and two 2 point tries, good enough for 5th place overall. We have all heard the age old adage: “Quarterbacks are paid to win or lose on third down” well maybe a pay cut is in order at the QB position.
During the 2023 season Vegas attempted 123 3rd downs, and converted just 44 of them, to make matters worse they opted to go for it on fourth down 16 times, converting only 6. Converting just 35% of your 3rd down attempts, and 37.5% on your fourth down attempts will never be enough. The Vipers rank 7th in third down percentage behind only the San Antonio Brahmas who couldn’t keep a quarterback healthy to save their lives. On fourth down they are ranked 6th in conversion rate with only Orlando and Houston below them. This needs to be a primary focus in 2024 if the Vipers hope to climb out of the basement in the XFL North.
Defense Needs to Produce More Negative Plays
The defense for the Vipers finished the season with 20 sacks despite having two very recognizable former NFL players rushing the passer in Vic Beasley, and Pita Taumoepenu. This was good for 5th in the league but placed them 15 sacks behind the vaunted Roughnecks pass rush who was tops in the league. The Vipers were also ranked fourth in total tackles for a loss, indicating they did a decent job of stopping the run, but could use improvement in both areas. This leads even the casual fan to the conclusion that both Linebacker, and defensive line are likely to be needs heading into the 2023 draft cycle. Vegas and DPP Clinkscales agreed.
The special teams unit for the Vipers needs help in several facets of the game. Despite attempting the second most field goals in the league with 18, the Vipers had the second least conversions with 9, and the only team below them, Orlando, attempted just 9 field goals, and converted 6th. Vegas held the worst conversion rate in the league, and it was only mildly better in the extra point category. They did make a midseason change at kicker, but there might be more change in order.
The return unit ranked 4th in return average, with 21.8 yards per return, and they also saw the second most kick return attempts in the XFL in 2023 behind only the Guardians. With 46 attempts, the Vipers were only one of two teams to top the 1,000 yard mark in this category, and a big reason why is Cinque Sweeting a very solid player, and a guy I expect to be a sought after commodity for the NFL in their 2024 offseason.
In the Punting department, the Vipers punted second most in the league, averaging 4.3 punts per game, just slightly below the Brahmas at 4.4 punts per game in 2023. However the Brahmas led the league in average yards per punt, while the Vipers were 5th with just over 41 yards per punt. With a total of 13 kicks at the 25 or below, they ranked 4th in the league behind Houston, San Antonio, and DC. Michael Carrizosa is certainly a capable punter, but he needs to work on his accuracy on coffin corner punts to increase his ability to pin teams near their own goal line and make life easier for his defense.
Breaking Down the Draft Class
Most Intriguing Players
5’11 205 pounds
College: Utah 17-19, Liberty 20-22
With several intriguing players in this draft class, I wanted to highlight a player I believe could be an early contributor for the Vipers in 2024. We discussed the porous run game the Vipers struggled through all season long, so I won’t rehash the statistics, but I will discuss why Green could be the solution to this issue.
Tj Green is an electric running back, however the big question about him is can he stand up to a large workload. In college spread across four seasons, Green collected 178 carries for 967 yards, and 7 touchdowns, while showing paltry at best passing game production with 16 receptions for 105 yards. What caught my eye, and I assume Vegas’s as well, is his yards per carry mark. Green averaged 5.43 yards per carry, and it arguably would have been much higher if not for his redshirt sophomore season in 2018.
A four star recruit hailing from Chandler, Arizona coming out of high school, Utah originally brought him in, but he remained buried on the depth chart before he opted to transfer to Liberty after his third year at Utah. Redshirting as a 5’11 185 pound freshman, Green added 20 pounds to his frame in just two seasons in a college weight room. Something tells me he will only continue to develop his body in a professional weigh room.
His lack of total production in college is a huge reason why he didn’t receive more NFL consideration, but he is exactly the type of boom or bust candidate that the XFL can expect to see drafted every season for as long as the league lives. I anticipate him making the roster, and I wouldn’t be shocked to see Vegas try and use him more in the passing game, and possibly on special teams as well. His vision and burst are traits that stick out on film, and I am excited to see what he can bring to this Vipers offense.
6’2 180 pounds
College: Cerritos College 16-17, Northern Arizona 18-22
Another interesting weapon being added to the offense is Stacy Chukwumezie is a JUCO product originally attending Cerritos College for two seasons. He played in 19 games total, and managed to collect 50 receptions for 899 yards and 5 touchdowns, an average of 17.98 yards per reception before moving on to Northern Arizona University.
This meant he overlapped with Philadelphia Stars quarterback Case Cookus for his first two seasons. Its no coincidence that 2019 his last year with Cookus was his break out season at NAU. Catching 50 passes for 963 yards and 8 touchdowns. It will be interesting to see what happens with Cookus and Philly, does he return for season 3? IF he does do we see a player like Chukwumezie follow him to the USFL?
After Cookus left, Chukwumezie’s production plummeted, but not because of the change over at quarterback. Over the final three seasons at NAU, Chukwumezie played in just 12 games. Whether it was due to Covid 19, or injury, he had three seasons in a row shortened to end his seven year collegiate career. What started off looking promising for the young man after he leveled up out of the JUCO ranks, quickly fell apart. He would graduate from NAU after playing 28 games from 2018-2022. During that stretch he collected 96 receptions 1,629 yards, 12 touchdowns, as well as 8 carries for 31 yards and 1 touchdown, and 3 kick returns for 75 yards.
Averaging 3 receptions for 53.7 yards per game are solid numbers even if it wasn’t the eye-popping numbers it looked like he was on pace for after the 2019 season. However if you wanted a player that tested well at his pro-day, this move makes sense. According to DraftScout.com, he managed a 4.47 40-yard dash, a 36 inch vertical leap, 8 reps in the bench press, and a 6.93 3-cone drill with a 1.55 10-yard split displaying his explosiveness off the line of scrimmage.
Offensive Line Help Comes in Bunches
The Vipers, not happy with their offensive line’s performance or depth in 2023, opted to select 4 offensive linemen, and claim another after the draft. All five of these players offer something that the team can use immediately in 2024 should they put pen to paper and ink those contracts.
A three sport athlete coming out of high school, he settled in on the offensive line after running track and field, and playing baseball in high school. This is just a quick glimpse at the type of athleticism he brings to the offensive line. He played his entire career at UC Davis, and most of it came at left tackle. Joining the school in 2017 he red-shirted his first season, before stepping into a depth role where he appeared in 10 games. Over the next 3 seasons he started 19 games, playing in another 6 regular season games as a reserve. His senior season he was named First Team All Big Sky Conference. Amoah is a solid prospect to bring in for more competition at left tackle.
Desmond Bessent brings tremendous size to the offensive line standing 6’7 305 pounds in 2022 for the University of Buffalo, he started 13 games at left tackle, providing yet another option for left tackle for Vegas. Prior to Buffalo, he played for San Diego State University. The former two sport high school athlete, was rated as a 2 or 3 star product coming out of Tampa Bay. This led him to choose between San Diego State, and Georgie Southern. Choosing San Diego State gave him a chance to develop over the next few seasons without being forced into the lineup too early. He played just 20 games for the Aztecs over four seasons, primarily being a member of the travel squad, but seeing limited action. That was until the 2021 season. He would play in all 13 game starting 2 games for SDSU. This helped him find a new home as a starter for the 2022 season. These final two years saved his professional career. Now we get to see him develop with the XFL.
Occasionally you will find pedigree players in the XFL, and Mitchell is one of them. Granted he didn’t attend a large college, it was his ratings coming out of high school that show the potential he had as a young player. He was named Second Team All Conference, and Second Team All State during high school playing both offensive and defensive line. He would then commit to Lackawanna, where he would focus on the offensive side moving forward. He has played right guard primarily and I look for him to continue at this position in the XFL. Returning from an injury in 2022, he was able to earn MEAC Offensive Lineman of the Year just before finishing his collegiate career. To say he was a solid developmental prospect to target is putting it lightly. I am excited about Mitchell, and what he can add to this line in 2024 and beyond.
Another Liberty alumni on the board for Vegas, they must have liked what they saw with Malik Willis at the helm over the past few seasons. Originally a three star recruit he played both offensive tackle, and tight end at the high school level. At 6’6 320 pounds, he could be used as a 6th offensive lineman in run situations as an inline tight end. This could be a huge asset for the Vipers who struggled on 3rd and 4th down, and need to do something to quell this issue in 2024. Can Watkins slide into the lineup right away due to his background catching passes? Originally having attended Kentucky, Watkins has a lot of experience coming out of college. He played in 25 games over 4 seasons after redshirting as a freshman and suffering through Covid 19. He would attend Liberty in 2022 as a graduate transfer. Regarded as a plus athlete Watkins could be a player to watch long-term for the Vipers.
As mentioned above, Edwards was also selected by the USFL’s Stars in their 2023 rookie draft class. Edwards was invited to mini camp with Denver, and Chicago, so this is a bit of gamble by both leagues to grab a borderline NFL offensive lineman. We will see if he signs with either league for the 2024 season. It might be the best move to solidify his NFL future if he isn’t on a roster to finish out the 2023 NFL season.
The Vipers not only picked up the XFL rights to five offensive linemen, but doubled down on the trenches by adding three defensive linemen. Clearly Joey Clinkscales and this team self scouted fairly well all season identifying needs and positions they would like to upgrade. More importantly he understands how difficult it can be to find talented players to fill out these positions due to the talent pool being pulled at from leagues all over the world.
Jamare Edwards coming out of James Madison University played primarily interior defensive line. Edwards is yet another player on this list who transferred at some point during his collegiate career, a theme that seems to ring true for all of these players selected. originally committed to Marshall, he finished his career with James Madison where he was able to setup camp in opposing backfield and was a nightmare for running backs. He averaged 1 tackle for a loss per game for the Dukes. He is also a capable pass with 6.5 sacks in 2022. He graduated with 24 tackles for a loss, and 12.5 sacks as an interior defensive lineman. Impressive numbers, for a high potential player in what is sure to be a new look from seven for Vegas.
Fauatea is an interesting prospect who spent his entire career with BYU after being recruited as a three star defensive end. He has since shifted inside to tackle, also seeing time as a blocker on special teams. Played 48 games for BYU from 2017-2022, he was used primarily as a rotation piece. Despite not being a full-time starter, the 6’4 310 pound tackle managed 11 tackles for a loss, 6 sacks, 5 QB Hits, 3 forced fumbles, 1 recovery and 3 pass break ups. He’s a player could turn into a great depth piece for Vegas.
Jones got his start in college with Wyoming before transferring to Akron. The 6‘4 255 pound defensive end played in 37 games for Wyoming where he had 6.5 sacks. His best season came with Akron in 2022 when he had 11.5 tackles for a loss, and 5.5 sacks. Assuming Jones signs with Vegas they could be getting a player to keep an eye on as a potential replacement for Beasley or Taumoepenu long term if the NFL comes calling. Jones should join the team with a sponge like mentality learning from two NFL vets ahead of him.
Double Dip at Linebacker
The Vipers not only picked five offensive linemen, and three defensive linemen but they also drafted and claimed a linebacker as well. Meaning 10 of their thirteen rookies play offensive line or defensive front seven with only three players playing wide receiver, running back and defensive back. This is an interesting philosophy but not one without logic backing it up. The Vipers need help at these three position groups in particular, so making an extra effort to see a significant return on their rookie investments.
6’3 230 pounds
College University of South Florida 18-22
Dwayne Boyles is a very productive college linebacker who played his entire career with the University of South Florida for five seasons thanks to Covid 19. After playing primarily as a rotational player as a freshman, he stepped into a starting role and never looked back. Playing in 54 career games, he managed to amass 320 total tackles. Including an impressive final season that saw him total 113 tackles a career high.
With an average of nearly 6 tackles a week throughout his college career, its amazing that he wasn’t drafted or signed as an undrafted rookie even after attending a rookie minicamp with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Boyles is a player whose work out numbers will not wow you, running a 4.71 at 227 pounds during his pro-day, but he simply produces.
One thing about these alternative football leagues holding drafts, and bringing in rookies who might otherwise spend their careers bouncing around strictly on practice squads until they are deemed too old to be a developmental player any longer, is that we see a chance for these players to get real playing time even if it is as a back-up in their first season. Rather than taking a hand full of reps on a 90 man NFL roster, where they might be the 6th-7th man at their respective position group, they get to play in real games, against comparable talent, and show that their production wasn’t just stemming from level of competition at the collegiate level.
A guy like Boyles, who has no real knocks on him outside of his athleticism, and smaller school experience is a perfect example of a guy who could become a star in the XFL, and find himself given a lot better chance to succeed as a second year player in the 2024 NFL Season.
6’2 215 pounds
College Appalachian State 18-22
Trey Cobb is headed to the XFL after a very productive career at Appalachian State. Playing in 58 games over five seasons, he started 40 games after taking over mid-way through the 2019 season. His 2022 season was cut short due to an untimely injury after 6 games. This is likely part of the reason he didn’t see more interest on the open market.
If you wanted a snapshot of the production that Cobb was responsible for here is the best possible representation he was the only FBS player in 2021 with at least 75 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, three interceptions and seven passes defended. An impressive feat, and a glimpse into what he can be at the XFL level if used properly.
He is just a bit undersized at 6’2 215 pounds, but he makes up for it in athleticism and coverage ability as demonstrated by his 10 tipped passes and 3 interceptions during college. However Cobb isn’t strictly a nickel linebacker to be brought on in packages either, he can truly be a three down linebacker able to help out as a pass rusher, or in setting the edge as well.
Over 58 games he collected 257 tackles, 21.5 for a loss, 4 sacks, 3 interceptions for 110 yards and 1 touchdown, 10 pbu’s, 1 forced fumble, and 4 recoveries. Impressive production on all fronts, it does leave me wondering if he would be in the NFL right now if not for the injury that cost him several games suffered in September. What’s more concerning is the fact that he is not the athlete that you might expect given his size. He ran a time only a lineman could be proud of in the 40-yard dash with 5.01, and a 1.81 10-yard split, he also had a 7.89 3-cone drill. All of these numbers are working against his NFL chances, especially given that he is also undersized. His one saving grace might be his ability to snare interceptions in coverage when used.
The Final Player Drafted
6’1 210 pounds
Darrius Nash came from Utah Tech, where he was initially invited to the New Orleans Saints camp to compete under former Defensive Backs Coach Dennis Allen. Nash is a versatile defender with the size, and solid speed with a 4.56 40-yard dash, and a 36 inch vertical leap. He could use some time in an XFL weight program to develop his strength if he is to be used as an in the box safety, or nickel linebacker.
I personally believe his best position might be as a free safety or big nickelback used to match up with larger slot receivers, tight ends, or running backs. He does however possess the necessary athleticism to go man up with most XFL receivers, as a true full-time cornerback although that is likely not the role we will see for him.
In five seasons for Utah Tech, he played in 47 games, collecting 214 tackles, 13.5 for a loss, 5.5 sacks, 4 interceptions for 175 yards and 1 touchdown, 22 pass break ups, 4 forced fumbles, and 3 recoveries. This shows how versatile he truly is and shows that he can line up in the box, back deep, or even see snaps rushing the passer. I am particularly interested to see how he is used in 2024 for the Vipers. I believe he could end up being a very critical piece of this Vegas defense under former defensive back Cris Dishman, owner of 43 career interceptions with the NFL.
Overall I think this was about as generic of a draft class as you can get, but not in a bad manner. The front office had to get creative to make sure they drafted talented players to fill needs, but did so without the oversight of a head coach. Given that they do not know who will fill this role, it provided a unique challenge for those currently in power to bring in players that could fit in most any system, and players that not only provided scheme versatility but positional versatility to allow the next head coach more freedom to move these players where he sees fit.
With the head coaching position not yet filled this draft class is hard to grade, but I love that they leaned so heavily on the trenches. Typically the best teams in any professional football league build from the front back. I’ve talked at length about the investments NFL franchises like the Eagles make every season on offensive or defensive line, and they continue to be among the most competitive teams in the NFC year after year no matter who is coaching the team. Following a best player available model, and leaning toward the lines, can be a powerful strategy, it remains to be seen if the effects of the draft are seen immediately or it takes more time for the rookie Vipers to contribute.
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