With the XFL set to return for it’s third flight in 2023, under the direction of Dany Garcia, The Rock, and RedBird Capital, it felt like high-time that I turned my keyboard in the direction of the Spring league I feel most likely to achieve some sort of sustainable success.
John Turner and I spoke at length about the omnipotent branding power of The Rock on a recent episode of The Jake Bowtell Sports Experience, and it’s that Midas’ Touch the former WWE wrestler possesses that has me hot and heavy about the potential of the XFL when it returns. You can catch the episode here.
Dwayne Johnson has forged a unique ability to be supremely successful and powerful, while remaining likable and relatable to all sides of the political spectrum. In divisive times, that’s a tough feat to accomplish, and something that the NFL has struggled mightily with in recent times. While the Rock may not be making detailed day to day decisions for the league, the brains trust of Dany Garcia and associated sharp minds at RedBird Capital no doubt understand that in their leading man they hold a mighty weapon unlike any seen in previous iterations of 21st Century Spring football.
But as powerful as The Rock is, he has passed beyond the time where he could have suited up and run out for the Tampa Bay Vipers in Week 1. As much as his off-field presence can help propel the league to Global prominence, fans around the world are going to need marketable stars to cheer for on the gridiron.
I decided to take a look at some names who could be XFL targets in 2023, if we squint just a little bit and imagine a scenario where the league invests heavily at the most marketable position… quarterback. This article combines a little bit of sense with a sexy dash of fantasy. If that’s not your thing, may the football gods help you.
Alright, first up we’re going to run back the hits. If the Houston Roughnecks return, I would like to see current Carolina Panthers backup PJ Walker reunited with his former XFL franchise. Walker tore up the league in 2020’s iteration, leading the Roughnecks to a 5-0 record before play was halted due to “The Virus”.
During that 2020 campaign, the Roughnecks QB completed 65% of his passes, throwing for 1,338 yards with 15 touchdowns and just 4 interceptions. On the ground, he added 99 yards on 24 carries with 1 score. Walker is a terrifically exciting playmaker, and while he has lacked the top end arm talent and decision-making to truly crack into the NFL, he’s already shown he’s more than capable of dicing up the defenses he’s likely to face in the return season of the XFL.
In addition, a signing like Walker anchors the XFL to a successful past, at least for the Houston franchise. The fans of the other seven teams from 2020 already have to listen to a constant barrage of “we were the first champs” from Roughnecks fans whose team had completed just half a season, imagine how bristling with excitement they’ll be if their leading man returns?
The former Roughneck is currently signed to a 1 year $895,000 deal through 2022 with Carolina, but becomes a Restricted Free Agent in 2023. If he’s still floating around the fringes of the NFL by then, the XFL must give the people what they want and bring Walker back to Houston.
This signing has no previous anchorage with the XFL, but brings all sorts of exciting potential if the league could lure him away from the Baltimore Ravens in 2023.
Huntley went undrafted out of Utah, but has found a home backing up former league MVP Lamar Jackson in Baltimore. Huntley made four starts for the Ravens this season, going 1-3 while putting up some impressive performances on a pretty poor team. While his overall numbers aren’t necessarily eye-popping (Huntley completed 64.9% of his passes for 1,081 yards with 3 TDs and 4 picks), his performance against the Green Bay Packers was attention-grabbing. In the 30-31 loss, Huntley completed 28/40 passes for 215 yards with 2 TDs and 0 INTs, while rushing the ball 13 times for 73 yards and 2 scores on the ground.
Huntley’s ceiling in the NFL through two seasons seems to be elite back-up to fringe starter if the pieces around him are right, and that sort of talent level would be a significant step up on what the XFL had at the position last time out. Tyler Huntley will make the ESPN highlight reel each week for reasons other than taking a massive verbal dump on his coaching staff at half-time, and the XFL should absolutely be aiming to make guys like him their standard for starting QB.
Availability will be tricky, Huntley is presently an Exclusive Rights Free Agent with the Ravens, meaning all Baltimore has to do to retain his services in 2022 is offer him a one year league minimum deal. If there is any prayer of getting a guy like Huntley in 2023, the XFL should make a play.
Perkins was signed with the LA Rams as an Undrafted Free Agent following two years as a starter with Virginia in College. He’s been activated to the Rams’ active roster a couple of times but has mostly spent his time in LA on the practice squad.
For Virginia, Perkins was dynamic. In two seasons as the starter he completed 64.5% of his passes for 6,210 yards with 47 touchdown passes and 21 interceptions. On the ground he added 1,692 yards on 439 carries for 20 scores. He was a multi-talented weapon who was the engine of the offense, accounting for an absurd percentage of the team’s attacking production.
We’ve seen Perkins in preseason action for the Rams and the athletic play-making ability he has displayed certainly seems like an exciting fit for the XFL. Like PJ Walker and Tyler Huntley, you want guys who are both productive and entertaining to watch. Players that inspire kids to buy a jersey and throw that XFL ball around the backyard. Players that intoxicate the imagination. A guy like Perkins could do that for the league, if liberated from the dusty graveyard of an NFL practice squad.
Perkins, like Tyler Huntley, becomes an Exclusive Rights Free Agent in 2023. The NFL loves to collect talented players and keep them in a state of slow erosion on their depth charts, so the Rock and co. are going to have to find the means, and by means I mean money, to break that cycle and get these guys in front of people’s eyeballs.
Ok, so this one is likely a heavy, heavy dose of sexy fantasy. But light some candles folks, we’re getting saucy.
The former Washington Cougar has developed a penchant for being one of the most popular players for fans to cheer for wherever he goes, rocking an outrageous 1970’s pornstache and alternating between flowing locks and a headband, and a cascading mullet. He’s as famous for his jockstrap stretching antics as he is for his feats on the gridiron, but the hilarious WWE persona constructed around Minshew sometimes obscures the fact that he’s put together a surprisingly strong NFL resume in his young career.
In three seasons he has started in 22 games, completed 63.2% of his passes, thrown for 5,969 yards, with 41 touchdowns and just 12 interceptions. He’s been on the cusp of being a regular NFL starter wherever he’s been, and may yet earn himself a longer stint with the Philadelphia Eagles, after providing a couple of impressive back up performances behind Jalen Hurts (41/60 for 439 yards with 4 TDs and 1 INT in two appearances in 2021).
Minshew will more than likely be priced out of the XFL’s range in 2023 if he continues making himself such a valuable backup/fringe starter in the NFL, but if the XFL can cook up a scenario where they could lure a guy like this into the fold with the promise of a full-time starting job and a bunch of ZOA energy drink commercials, he could quickly establish himself as the King of Spring.
I would love to see him rocking that Tampa Bay Vipers lime green number.
Getting higher-end talent into the XFL as quickly as possible has to be a massive priority for the league in 2023. While talent at every position is obviously important, talent at quarterback is more visible and marketable, and therefore more valuable for a revived league looking to make an instant impact on the football landscape.
The game will begin to change if the XFL can lure away higher-end NFL backups like Tyler Huntley, and the wheel will truly start to shatter if they can steal the services of a QB commodity like Gardner Minshew. What the 2023 XFL has that the 2020 version didn’t, is a truly global brand icon in The Rock. Even if he isn’t pulling the levers of the league day and night, he is the fire that must fill the hearts and minds of football fans desperate for an NFL alternative. It is his broad spectrum likability and his far-reaching business partnerships with folks like Jeffrey Bezos (who, by the way, wanted an NFL franchise… watch out for that Amazon XFL money), that make him a unique weapon for the XFL in it’s battle to break the NFL’s year-round pro football supremacy.
With the NFL facing serious accusations of systemic racism in its hiring practises, and allegations that teams have been paid to tank for draft picks, the XFL has a unique opportunity to provide something ethical, inclusive, and exciting for a divided football public.
If the Rock, Garcia, and RedBird deliver… what can they say except “you’re welcome”?
Jake Bowtell is a sports podcaster and writer with a particular obsession with American Football. You can listen to him on The Jake Bowtell Sports Experience, The Chaps Chat Cats, and read him on A Football World, and his Patreon page “The Jake Bowtell Sports Experience”. He resides in the Middle of Nowhere, Australia, and is stared at oddly by locals when he wears his NFL jerseys down the street.
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