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March 23, 2020

O’Leary: Talent pool opens up as XFL players become available

Johany Jutras/CFL.ca

As the sports world has been brought to a halt over the last two weeks because of COVID-19, there’s been a trickle down effect that reaches the CFL.

With the XFL cancelling its season because of the virus, its players remained under contract through May 31. As of Monday, March 23, XFL players are able to ask for their early release to sign with NFL or CFL teams.

The rumour mill is already churning, with some familiar CFL names possibly eyeing a return.

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Green was likely the most recognizable name to head to the XFL, but there were a handful of other recognizable CFLers that went south to play this year as well. Offensive lineman Derek Dennis and receivers Armanti Edwards and Jalen Saunders, along with defensive lineman Nikita Whitlock headline that list.

A dig through our last negotiation list reveal shows that there were also a number of players in the XFL that were on the radar of CFL teams. One coveted name came off of that list Monday morning, though, as quarterback P.J. Walker will reportedly join the Carolina Panthers. Walker is on the Ottawa REDBLACKS’ neg list.

Let’s take a look at the players that we know and a few that we don’t.

FAMILIAR FACES

In the four years he’s been in Calgary, Dennis has been a force on the Stamps’ offensive line (Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)

Dennis, 31, joined the New York Guardians on Feb. 25, after spending the last five years in the CFL (four with Calgary, with a year in Saskatchewan sandwiched in between). The CFL’s Most Outstanding offensive lineman in 2016, he won a Grey Cup with Calgary in 2018. A three-time CFL West all-star and a league all-star in 2016, Dennis will likely have his phone ringing off the hook in the coming weeks.

Green is a 13-year CFL vet, a three-time Grey Cup champion, a two-time league all-star and eight-time East all-star. Last year with the Argos, he broke the 10,000-career-yard mark. The 34-year-old has had a great career and clearly still feels he has a lot to give. Playing for his hometown Tampa Bay Vipers, Green reunited with his former Alouettes and Argos head coach, Marc Trestman.

Edwards has spent the last three years of his career with the Argos and has been a consistently productive receiver in each of those seasons. The 32-year-old had his first 1,000-yard season in 2019 (1,014 yards) after knocking on the door of that plateau the last two years. He had signed with the Dallas Renegades on Feb. 25.

Whitlock was a teammate of Green’s in Tampa Bay, after the Ticats made him a training camp cut in 2019. In the two seasons he was with the Ticats, Whitlock quickly won the coaches over with his versatility. The team used him as a defensive tackle and a running back and included him on special teams. The 28-year-old can impact every facet of the game and that should make him valuable to a CFL squad.

Saunders had a very productive year-and-a-half with the Ticats, pulling in 1,170 receiving yards in 2017 and 739 yards before he was injured in 2018. Like Whitlock, he was cut in the Ticats’ 2019 training camp. He was then chosen by his former Ticats’ coach, June Jones, in the XFL draft, but remained on the Roughnecks’ injured reserve list.

NEW FACES

A few names to keep an eye out for in the coming days and weeks as teams will add to their rosters:

Taylor Heinicke | QB, Blue Bombers

Heinicke was with the XFL’s St. Louis Battlehawks, after traipsing the NFL landscape for the last five years. In his senior year in 2013 at Old Dominion, he passed for 4,022 yards, 33 touchdowns and eight interceptions while rushing for 348 yards and five touchdowns. Heinicke became the 18th Div. I QB to surpass 10,000 passing yards and to rush for 1,000.

He can even punt a little. He had 13 punts at Old Dominion in his senior year, totaling 539 yards.

Connor Cook left Michigan State as its all-time win leader (Photo: Michigan State)

Connor Cook | QB, Argonauts

He’s a big quarterback — six-foot-four, 220 pounds — that spent the disrupted XFL season with an expert of the CFL game, in Houston head coach June Jones. The Michigan State product was a starter from 2013 to 2015 and left as the winningest QB in school history, with 34 victories.

Donnell Pumphrey | RB, Roughriders

After a standout career at San Diego State, Pumphrey seems like a picture-perfect running back for the CFL. The five-foot-eight, 170-pound, 25-year-old played with the DC Defenders this season and had 46 carries for 168 yards, putting him 10th in the league in rushing.

As a college player, Pumphrey rushed for 2,018 yards in the 2016 season and in the 2016 Las Vegas Bowl, he became the NCAA Div. I FBS leader in career rushing yards (6,405 yards).

Tre McBride | Rec, Roughriders

The 27-year-old receiver had a good run in the XFL. His 16 catches for 271 yards was fifth in the league. After looks from five different NFL teams over the last five seasons, McBride showed what he could do at the pro level in the XFL. He should be an intriguing player for the Riders as they map out their future.

Brandon Reilly | Rec, Blue Bombers

Reilly isn’t near the top of the XFL’s receiving leaders, but he had a few big plays while suited up for the St. Louis Battlehawks. The most eye-popping stat: A 63.8 yard average on his catches. His totals: seven catches for 107 yards, don’t paint a complete picture but he remains an interesting prospect and possible one-day Blue Bomber.

The Nebraska product has made his way through Buffalo, Detroit, Dallas and Pittsburgh looking for a spot on an NFL roster.

Here’s a look at some of the XFL free agents that are on CFL teams’ negotiation lists.

Team Name Pos School Status CFL team
Dal Jeff Badet WR Oklahoma Active HAM
Dal Willie Beavers OT Western Michigan Active EDM
Hou Connor Cook QB Michigan State Active TOR
Dal Eric Dungegy QB Syracuse Active OTT
Stl Taylor Heinicke QB Old Dominion Active WPG
DC Tyree Jackson QB Buffalo Active BC
LA Charles Kanoff QB Princeton Active CGY
LA Tre McBride WR William & Mary Active SSK
STL Brandon Reilly WR Nebraska Active WPG