|Thursday, April 26
NFL teams have been watching XFL
By Greg Garber
Corey Nelson caught merely nine passes for the Las Vegas Outlaws during the XFL season, but agent Derrick Fox claims he recently had six NFL teams battling for the wide receiver's services.
Why would the NFL scramble for a part-time player from a team that failed to make the playoffs in a league it officially refused to acknowledge? Size and speed. Specifically, Nelson, who is 6-foot-1, 200 pounds, has been clocked in the 40-yard dash in a world-class 4.28 seconds. Ultimately, the Seattle Seahawks prevailed and signed him to a contract.
"It's a game that's played with speed," Nelson said Wednesday from his home in Boise, Idaho. "You can't teach too many athletes to run fast."
After taking a year off to focus on the Olympics -- his 200- and 400-meter times placed him among the nation's top 20, but he failed to qualify at the Trials last summer -- Nelson, who played at Boise State University, signed with the XFL.
"This kid can be so dangerous," Fox said. "All he needed was someone who was willing to develop him, teach him when to make his break and read defenses. The Outlaws did that. Corey Nelson wouldn't be in the NFL if it wasn't for the XFL."
While the sports fans systematically tuned out Vince McMahon's experimental football league over the course of its debut season, the NFL's scouts were in attendance for every game. Each team has at least one of its personnel staff devoted to the XFL, and as play gradually improved they grew to be impressed.
Now that the NFL Draft is over, salary cap-challenged teams are putting their money where their roster holes are, and that is good news for XFL players.
No fewer than 214 of the XFL's approximately 400 players formally opted out of their two-year XFL contracts by Wednesday's deadline, freeing them to sign with the NFL and other leagues. So far, 15 players already are under contract with NFL teams, but many are currently negotiating and that number is expected to rise sharply.
"If you question the quality of play, then why are so many players being signed by the higher league?" asked Mike Keller, the XFL's vice president of football operations. "I think when training camps get going we could have 80 to 90 guys on NFL rosters -- that's 30 percent of our players. If half of those stick, that means we've got five NFL players per team.
"That's not too bad."
Consider these recent developments:
"It's a good thing for us," said Rick Reprish, the Jaguars' director of player personnel. "It's a great source of information about these players."
"You have to tip your hat to these guys," said Donovan McNabb, the Philadelphia Eagles' quarterback. "Playing in those XFL games, it's a free-for-all -- I mean, look at that coin toss, that right there is daredevil stuff. Listen, you get the players wherever they are. I'm sure we'll pick up a few guys."
There is a precedent for the NFL's raid on the XFL. Nearly 200 players and a number of coaches eventually made their way from the United States Football League in the middle-1980s, including Herschel Walker, Steve Young, Jim Kelly, Reggie White and Jim Mora. The USFL, however, was handing out huge contracts to compete with the NFL, which ultimately led to its demise. The low-budget XFL will not be drawn into a bidding war with the NFL. Consequently, most of its players are expected to compete for backup positions and practice squad spots.
"I don't see them as stealing our players," said Drew Ohlmeyer, the Xtreme's director of public relations, "I see them as legitimizing this league. Say 75 guys go into the camps, 10 stick and maybe someone has a breakout season -- then we're here for the next 80 years."
A long, long haul
"Five teams, three different leagues," said Blackman, a 6-6, 290-pound offensive lineman for the Outlaws. "Talk about loving what you do."
Blackman, a tight end at Purdue, where he also played basketball, spent time with the Detroit Lions and Indianapolis Colts in 1998 and 1999 before signing last February with the Philadelphia Eagles. They assigned him to the Berlin Thunder of NFL Europe. Then, after getting cut by the Eagles in training camp, Blackman spent a month with the Denver Broncos and finished the season on the Carolina Panthers' practice squad. After five days off, he joined the XFL's Outlaws. Naturally, he leaves today for the Panthers' mini-camp.
"The XFL was a lot better caliber of play than most people gave it credit for," Blackman said. "There are playmakers out there who can step on the field and make something happen. It's all about getting the right opportunity."
While Blackman already has a spot secured in the NFL, the XFL's best player does not. Quarterback Tommy Maddox, for a variety of reasons, finds himself in limbo.
Maddox, you may remember, played his college ball at UCLA and was the first-round pick of the Denver Broncos in 1992. He played for head coach Dan Reeves for two seasons there and for another in New York.
Maddox surfaced with the Xtreme and wound up as the XFL's Player of the Year. The only quarterback to start all 10 regular-season games, Maddox completed 196 of 342 passes for 2,186 yards and 18 touchdowns. He was a solid 16-for-28 and 210 yards in the Xtreme's 38-6 win over San Francisco in the championship.
Still, he is no lock for a roster spot. Maddox will turn 30 in September and he has not distinguished himself in the NFL. And because he has accrued the equivalent of four full seasons in the NFL, his five-year veteran minimum salary, as dictated by the collective bargaining agreement, would be $477,000. That's more than double the $209,000 rookie free agents will make. Nevertheless, Maddox and his representatives have been having conversations with the passer-poor Dallas Cowboys.
Perhaps the best chance to make an impact in the NFL belongs to Cortez, the Xtreme placekicker. After missing three field goals of 35 yards or less in the first two games, he went on to convert 20 of 25. He kicked four field goals in the championship game, including a 50-yarder -- into the wind. If he impresses the 49ers this weekend, he could become the main competition for Kansas State's Jamie Rheem.
McCullough also has a good chance to land on the 49ers' roster. After a career at Oregon, where he led the PAC-10 in rushing, he spent some time with the Raiders. McCullough, 5-9, 196 pounds, spent two years out of football before casting his lot with the XFL. The player that was the 464th choice in the XFL's open draft somehow became the league's most unlikely star.
Xtreme teammate Jeremaine Copeland has been telling folks that some 10 NFL teams are pursuing him after he led the XFL with 67 receptions over the regular season. The real number, according to agent Ivan Zigler, is more like two.
"It's funny," said Zigler, of Impact Sports, "the guy set records in NFL Europe and in the XFL and they're not coming after him. I mean, he's not going to beat you in a vertical game but he catches everything that's thrown to him."
Indeed, Copeland caught 19 passes in one game last year for the Barcelona Dragons and followed that up with 17 against the Enforcers. He was the Xtreme's most productive receiver in the playoffs with eight catches for 122 yards and two touchdowns.
Copeland, who played with Peyton Manning at Tennessee, had a brief opportunity with the Colts but they decided he wasn't fast enough to play in the NFL. After a stint in NFL Europe, Copeland chose the XFL over the CFL.
Earlier this week, the Miami Dolphins informed Zigler they were no longer interested. Now, it's down to Jacksonville and the New York Jets.
"You would think," Zigler said, "someone would find a spot for him."
The alternative league
Commissioner Paul Tagliabue has been happy to bash the XFL, but you won't hear the league's personnel men rip it. Off the record, they are extremely complimentary.
Las Vegas Outlaws Coach Jim Criner, who has had five players sign with the NFL already, starts ticking off the names of another half-dozen Las Vegas players with a legitimate chance to land in a training camps.
He mentions safety Brandon Sanders, who spent two years as a special teams madman for the New York Giants. And then there is defensive end Kelvin Kinney, who spent time with the Washington Redskins. Among others.
"We've got a total of 13 guys that are being talked to strongly by NFL teams and being worked out," Criner said. "The NFL coaches and the personnel people don't knock the league. Most of them are glad to have another avenue for these guys to stay alive. We're not a threat to the NFL. We're an alternative league."
As players have opted out of their one-year, plus one-year option XFL contracts, the new league has been forwarding the information to the NFL. XFL officials understand their best chance for credibility is to have a few players blossom in the established league. They are hoping for a marketing windfall similar to the surprising success of the Arena League's Kurt Warner when he won the NFL MVP and led his team to the Super Bowl.
"We're doing it for the players," said Keller, who played linebacker for the Dallas Cowboys and worked in personnel for the Cowboys and Seattle Seahawks. "It's not our intent to help the NFL, but we started out talking about opportunity. We're not going to start jacking the players around at this point."
Keller and other XFL administrators are hoping the XFL can one day supplant NFL Europe as the finishing school for NFL players. They point to the mid-April end of the XFL season, which allows players to attend NFL rookie mini-camps and regular mini-camps before training camp in July and August. NFL Europe concludes July 1 and the Arena League runs into mid-August.
"The quicker you can get them into the system," said Las Vegas' Criner, "the better they're going to be. It's all about finding the right fit."
Criner's best example is safety George Coghill. He played for Criner in Scotland when NFL Europe was still known as the World League from 1995-97. The Denver Broncos signed him after the 1997 season and today Coghill has two Super Bowl rings.
"He was the best safety in the World League, no question," Criner said. "Denver finally gave him a shot. That's all these guys are asking for."
Bobby Singh, a 6-3, 315-pound guard for the Xtreme, is waiting for that shot to prove he belongs in the NFL.
He could be on the verge of a deal with the San Francisco 49ers; on Thursday, he was among several XFL players getting worked out in Santa Clara. A member of the St. Louis Rams two years seasons ago, Singh would be looking for his third title ring in three seasons of professional football.
Singh was collecting workman's compensation from the Rams while rehabbing a back injury last spring when the XFL came calling. The national television contract and the prospect of staying in the United States convinced Singh to pass on a similar offer from NFL Europe.
A sprained knee sidelined him for the first four weeks of the XFL season, but he started the last five games on the way to the title.
"I proved that the back is healthy," Singh said from his Long Beach, Calif., home. "Hopefully, I showed the NFL I can play for them, too. That's why you go through all this abuse."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.