The USFL regular season just concluded, and though we don’t really cover that league on this site (at least not yet), we’re going to show it some love right now. Before you ask why I’d give any thought to a spring league, think of such leagues as the minor leagues of football. Veterans and UDFAs who don’t make NFL rosters or practice squads can gain experience and put plays on tape. It worked last year: Dallas signed USFL MVP KaVontae Turpin, and he subsequently made the Pro Bowl as a returner. I see no reason more players can’t follow this path, so we’re going to look at the top 10 USFL players who should be signed by NFL teams.
QB Case Cookus, Philadelphia Stars
We’re probably a year late with Cookus. He had a fantastic stretch run in the new USFL’s first season and almost won the title. Alas, a broken ankle ruined that game and kept him out of NFL training camps. Another good season might renew his hopes. He finished second in the league in passing yards (2295) and TDs (15). WR Corey Coleman (who would’ve made this list if he didn’t already have a bunch of NFL chances), led the league in receiving yards due to his chemistry with Cookus. The QB has a solid arm and surprisingly good mobility, plus a good ability to read defenses. He’d be in the playoffs if he had a team around him.
QB Alex McGough, Birmingham Stallions
It’s not often a player makes a list like this when he wasn’t even supposed to start. J’Mar Smith, the incumbent, hurt his finger in the season opener and was lost for the season. McGough came in and took full advantage. As the engine that made the Stallions offense go, McGough led the league with a 67.4% completion rate and 20 TD passes (and threw just 5 INTs). His 108.3 QBR was also tops in the USFL. He further led all QBs with 403 yards and 5 TDs on the ground. Seattle’s former 7th-round pick looks like he deserves another shot to compete for a backup job in the NFL.
DT Toby Johnson, New Jersey Generals
I’ve tried to find a reason that Johnson isn’t in the NFL already, but I failed. A few reports say he isn’t very quick, while others suggest that he wasn’t very pro-ready as a rookie. Regardless of the issue, this is a 6’4″, 320-lb nose tackle that clogs the interior with massive power. He posted solid production at Georgia, and he had a good season for the Generals with 42 tackles and 3.5 sacks. I wouldn’t be surprised if he makes his second consecutive All-USFL team. He is a very capable space eater on the interior, and he could fit any team’s defensive line rotation, whether they play a 4-3 or a 3-4.
K Luis Aguilar, Philadelphia Stars
Do you know the record for the most made field goals in a single pro football game? Aguilar does, because he shares it: 8. That was impressive enough, but he also made 86% of his FGs despite some attempts being incredibly long. Aguilar also showed us that he could punt last season, potentially offering a team a saved roster spot. NFL teams have enough trouble finding quality kickers, so they’ll have their eyes on this league. I should also shout out Brandon Aubrey (Stallions), Matt Coghlin (Breakers), and Nick Sciba (Generals) here; they’ve been excellent as well.
LB Frank Ginda, Michigan Panthers
The USFL’s leading tackler (104), Ginda flies all over the field. He particularly excels in coverage, where he finished second in the league with 3 INTs and broke up 5 passes to boot. Ginda isn’t the biggest linebacker at 6’1″ and 225 lbs, but he is built for today’s game. Smaller, rangier LBs that can move in space are important pieces in an NFL that is increasingly reliant on throwing the ball. Ginda has shown that he can cover RBs out of the backfield or tackle them when they run the ball. His versatility improves his odds of making an NFL roster, and he might be able to crack one with his special teams play.
DE Breeland Speaks, Michigan Panthers
NFL teams are always looking for pass rushers, even rotational options. Thus, if a DE is having a good season, he gets noticed. That leads us to our second consecutive Panther. Speaks led the USFL in sacks with 9, dominating (admittedly weak) offensive lines. He also blew away all other DEs with 53 tackles (6 for loss), showing his prowess in the running game. With a very poor offense, Michigan relied on its defense and special teams to make the playoffs. Speaks played a major role in that, and if he can have this type of impact here, he can at least be a rotational lineman in the NFL.
LB Vontae Diggs, New Orleans Breakers
When you talk about LBs like Ray Lewis or Brian Urlacher, you often hear them described as the “heart and soul” of the team. Diggs is just that for the Breakers. His energy and intensity set the tone for the defense, but he has the production to back it all up. A true 3-down LB, Diggs earned 67 tackles (6 for loss), 2.5 sacks, and 3 INTs (1 for a TD). He has proven that he can play against both the run and the pass, meaning that he wouldn’t need to come off the field for certain packages. There’s definitely a market for this type of player, and most teams want more than one.
CB Mark Gilbert, Pittsburgh Maulers
Something every team in the league needs is a shutdown corner. The Maulers might just have one to offer. Gilbert was the most impressive coverage corner this year by far. He picked off a league-leading 4 passes, and he led the USFL with a whopping 15 PBUs. I’m not sure how well he’d fit teams that use zone coverage, but his man skills are superb. His sticky coverage makes him ideal for a press man scheme, as he won 1-on-1 battles regularly throughout the season. Gilbert was even a willing run defender, earning 32 tackles (2 TFLs). Teams looking for a cover man might be pleasantly surprised by Gilbert.
RB Mark Thompson, Houston Gamblers
Maybe it’s because they both played at Florida, but Thompson reminds me a lot of another Houston RB: the Texans’ Dameon Pierce. At 6’2″ and 235 pounds, Thompson is powerfully built. He’s a bit taller than Pierce, but both excel at running through contact to pick up tough yards. Thompson barely finished second in the league with 654 rushing yards, and he missed 2 and a half games. He easily led the league with 14 TDs and showed his goal line skills. Numerous NFL teams are missing a power back, and Thompson demonstrated that he can produce even when his opponent plans their defense around him.
Multiple Pass Catchers, New Orleans Breakers
This is cheating a bit, but three players honestly deserve this spot. All three finished in the top 10 in terms of receiving yards, and each offers something a little different. WR Jonathan Adams (477 yards, 1 TD) is a big-bodied size mismatch who wins contested catches and demolishes small CBs. WR Johnnie Dixon (462 yards, 5 TDs) is a 5’11” receiver who thrives in the slot. He can use his quickness and savvy route-running to find holes over the middle, and he runs after the catch for big plays. Finally, TE Sage Surratt (517 yards, 7 TDs), who was a prolific WR at Wake Forest, might be the most intriguing one. With the size of a TE and the speed of a WR, he’s quite a weapon.