XFL 2016: Impact Players
By: Connor Lenahan
No matter what outlet you get your sports news from there seems to be a consensus among fans and pundits that this season kinda, sorta sucks so far. The NFL seems off, and it’s not just because there have been two ties in two straight weeks. Superstar players have been underperforming, castoffs have suddenly become huge factors in games, and no team looks truly dominant in either the NFL or XFL. You might think this is fairly normal, and at some level it is, but the degree to which it’s happening is odd. We are seeing world class talents like Antonio Brown and Odell Beckham Jr. have pedestrian seasons when the rest of their careers point towards absolute dominance. Julio Jones is either the best player on the Falcons or nowhere to be seen on a weekly basis. The Cowboys look like the second best team in football. Tom Brady might be playing the best football of his career at a full two levels above the rest of the quarterbacks in the league. It’s weird.
I am a believer that talent ultimately wins out in the long run. Yes, we are now entering the latter stages of this season, but that means there is plenty of time for the league to figure itself out. There have been a lot of interesting twists early this year with some players succeeding far beyond their pay grade – Jacquizz Rodgers comes to mind – but there is a reason most of these guys aren’t stars. Eventually, everything corrects itself. We get concerned about Aaron Rodgers in the moment, and we still should be, but he’s too good to finish with less than 3,500 yards and 29 TDs. Normalcy is due to an extent unless we are truly entering The Twilight Zone.
This week I want to take a look at the players who will be critical to the remaining success of their teams this season. These aren’t necessarily the best players or the most interesting on their rosters, but for one reason or another, they will play an important role in the playoff push for nearly every team.
New Orleans Tigers (7-1) – Paul Bruzzano: Spencer Ware
Let’s begin this week with the New Orleans Tigers who are fresh off a victory over the Washington Senators. The Tigers have been an interesting team all season. For eight weeks now I have tried to argue that they are overperforming and due to fall, but outside of a loss to Baltimore they haven’t. I’m still not changing my mind, but it’s strange, to say the least, to see this team grind out relatively close win after relatively close win every week. Now the news for Paul Bruzzano is not particularly heartening. Spencer Ware was concussed Sunday and Jacquizz Rodgers sprained his foot. The Tigers now need to plan for two missing running backs, meaning that Jordan Howard’s miraculous night against the Vikings better not have been one last flash in the pan. The net of the Tigers comes down to the fact that they are good enough and consistent enough to show up every week. They don’t have a particularly high ceiling, but you will need to reliably break 1200 to beat them, and that’s not a guarantee. Spencer Ware is a big reason why the Tigers have hung around all year, and he is going to be critical to the continued success of the Tigers going forward. Ware is a potential stud, and when you’d be replacing him with Jordan Howard it’s a different team. Ditto to Dion Lewis and Robert Kelley. Ware getting cleared to play ASAP is crucial for the Tigers as they make a legitimate run at the #1 seed in the playoffs.
Oklahoma City Lions (7-1) – Andrew Rebensky: Melvin Gordon
If I was making up betting odds for the XFL title as of right now I think – I think – I would make the Oklahoma City Lions the favorite. Their worst starter compared to the rest of their position group is Jay Ajayi, who apparently picked up the star in Mario Kart in Weeks 6 & 7 while rushing for over 400 yards. But Melvin Gordon is going to be the true X-Factor here. Gordon has been an overwhelming surprise this season after not reaching the end zone at all in 2015. Gordon has 10 total touchdowns and nearly 800 yards of offense collected. That’s an absurdly good season let alone first eight weeks. His points per game of 213 are good for fourth among running backs in an absurdly run heavy year and makes the Lions a far more dangerous monster. Drew Brees is Drew Brees and the collection of Demaryius Thomas/Mike Evans/Michael Crabtree/Allen Robinson can plug and play as needed. But Gordon gives them a fifth gear that few other teams have. Gordon, like most players here, takes the stress off the supporting cast and has a fairly high ceiling for what he can do now that he’s catching some passes. Gordon could transform his perception by season’s end into a lock down first round back.
Baltimore Bears (5-3) – Laura LaBrecque: Tom Brady
Remember how I said “I think” I would make the Lions favorites? Tom Brady is the singular person keeping me from making that a definite. I’m not sure there is a player that changes his roster more than Brady, and Laura’s commitment to the man is paying off greatly. Brady has been a monster this season in his first four games back. Save for the Steelers, Brady has dropped at least 540 in each game he’s played. Oh, and he still put up 325 on the Steelers. Brady might be playing the best football of his career and the Patriots have looked incredible on offense with Gronk, Martellus Bennett, Julian Edelman, and Chris Hogan. Brady doesn’t play many, if any, good defenses down the stretch. Yes, DeAndre Hopkins is struggling, and yes, the WR2 spot is the positional equivalent of a shoulder shrug, but when Brady is lapping the rest of the league by dropping almost 600 a week it’s tough to stay in games with the Bears unless every single player comes ready to dominate. This is all without mentioning David Johnson and Matt Forte, who suddenly make a return trip to the championship weekend seem very possible.
Pittsburgh Spikes (5-3) – Matt Gronsky & Brooke Chapple: Le’Veon Bell
The Pittsburgh Spikes just got through their toughest week of bye week hell this season and emerged roughly unscathed. They dropped their Week 8 game against the Chicago Hitmen, but did so while scoring 1370 points. That’s far from a bad game, and Le’Veon Bell wasn’t playing due to the Steelers’ bye. The three Spikes losses this season have come during two outright blowouts and their pseudo-scheduled loss without Roethlisberger/Bell which they still almost won. That bodes really, really well for the Spikes. Matt is potentially going to add Roethlisberger back this weekend, which makes the team dangerous and ready for the long haul again. Bell has to be the difference maker here because he’s one of the three biggest difference makers in the league. Bell is cleaning up this season with Antonio Brown’s uncharacteristic struggles, but because of the nature of the offense, Bell’s numbers will remain good even if Brown bounces back. He’s five points away from having scored over 200 in every game he’s played this season (195 in Week 6) and wrecks defenses with stark regularity. Bell is the best player on a really good Spikes team and makes the short list of players I would not want to see in the playoffs as an opponent.
Denver Blaze (5-3) – Ryan Gilbert & Pat Haggerty: LeSean McCoy
There are two ways to approach LeSean McCoy as the determining factor for the Blaze. The first is simplistic: McCoy is one of the best running backs in football when healthy and makes the Blaze a better team when he plays. Should he return from his hamstring injury the Blaze would again be a legitimate title contender. Here’s the more complex answer: McCoy fixes the roster construction in such a way that transforms the Blaze. When McCoy plays as an overqualified RB2 with DeMarco Murray he affords the Blaze the ability to play Frank Gore at the flex. This, in turn, lets Quincy Enunwa fill in at WR2 over players like Cameron Meredith. The Blaze don’t quite have the depth to plug the hole McCoy leaves without losing some offensive potency, so McCoy’s health is paramount to the Blaze from here on out. That said, if and when McCoy returns the Blaze are legitimately vying for the title just as much as all teams discussed above.
Las Vegas High Rollers (4-4) – Dan Griffith: AJ Green
Part of picking AJ Green here comes down to some “no shit” reasoning. Anyone that watches Green knows what we have known for years now: He’s the truth. The man is absurdly good at football and apparently takes personal pride in destroying defenders. But Green, much like McCoy, creates a trickle down effect for the High Rollers. This one is two-fold. For one, Green is playing well enough now to be the top scoring wide out in the league. He’s on bye this week, but Green is an honest to god game changer for the High Rollers in that he is regularly putting up scores above 150 or 200 points. That solves a lot of the problems of replacing Sammy Watkins in the long run. But the High Rollers also roster Andy Dalton, who sees a significant boost in value when Green is getting open. This duo has and will continue to change the outcomes of XFL games alone, and given Russell Wilson’s impacted mobility, will need to all season long. Frankly, given some of the other talents on the team and their precarious positioning, Green and Dalton will dictate the ceiling the High Rollers have all season, and it’s fairly high right now.
New York Titans (4-4) – Chase Lenahan: Ezekiel Elliott
Chase gambled on Ezekiel Elliott with the seventh pick of this year’s draft – well, as much as Elliott could be considered a gamble – and boy has it paid off. I’m not sure there are many other position players I have enjoyed watching more than Zeke this season. Not only are the Cowboys suddenly good again, but Zeke is making a legitimate play at the best back in football title with David Johnson and Le’Veon Bell. There’s a chance Zeke is a generational talent, and when he’s on so too are the Titans. Chase has a legitimate claim to one of the best reclamation projects all season with how he has repaired his roster so far. Flipping Blake Bortles for Kirk Cousins suddenly gives Chase a decision at QB along with Philip Rivers. Picking up Jeremy Maclin and Cole Beasley for Frank Gore solved a giant gap that Josh Doctson left in the wake of his failure to rehab from his Achilles injury. The Titans didn’t look terribly promising before the season, but with their question marks erased all that is left is exclamation points after watching Zeke run. If they can trust him to continue carving up opposing defenses like he has then the Titans are poised for a big second half.
Washington Senators (4-4) – Cary Lenahan: Ryan Mathews
Tough luck for Cary Lenahan’s team this week as the Denver Broncos placed CJ Anderson on the injured reserve. Suddenly the backfield for the Senators shifts to Ryan Mathews, who actually hasn’t been too bad for the Eagles so far. Mathews is far from good, but he’s better than every available back on the free agency list now. The Senators are going to be in trouble without Anderson, but if Mathews can stay healthy and provide even decent production then the season is far from over yet. Andrew Luck, Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, and Emmanuel Sanders can carry the weight of the team’s production for the long haul, but Mathews needs to sure up the backfield. It’s a substantial question mark, but Mathews could help the Senators stay alive into the playoff hunt just by staying upright. I think he can handle it.
Chicago Hitmen (4-4) – Jason Kohn: Derek Carr
The Chicago Hitmen are interesting this year due to their volatility. The wide receiver corps of Odell Beckham Jr., Brandin Cooks, Will Fuller V, and Terrelle Pryor should be strong but is ultimately scattered and largely unreliable. This doesn’t mean bad, per say, but it would certainly help Jason sleep knowing that he could count on his guys to produce like normal, rather than needing to wait to see if it’s a boom or bust game. Enter Derek Carr, who is suddenly the #4 quarterback in the league. Carr, like Brady, solves a lot of problems that are caused elsewhere on the team. Carr is quickly developing into one of the best passers in the league and is gifted with some absolute gems to pass to in Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree. Carr is the most important player for the Hitmen because he can, and sometimes has, bailed out the Hitmen of a dysfunctional day from the rest of the roster. The promising part for Jason? If all the pieces come together, the Hitmen are staggeringly dangerous.
Philadelphia Panthers (4-4) – Matt Pettinato: Todd Gurley
Matt Ryan has been the happiest surprise for the Panthers, but Gurley has certainly been the saddest surprise. Gurley is supposed to be a league-shifting force at running back, like the player he was for a crazy stretch in 2015. Gurley is absurdly talented and is surrounded by sub-league-average players on a Rams team that is perpetually stuck struggling. When Gurley faces nothing but blitzes it’s not a mystery as to why he has struggled. This selection of Gurley comes down to the player we know he can be. If Gurley so much as sniffs at becoming the monster he was last year then suddenly the Panthers jump a tier in how competitive they are. Gurley can transform a lower seed playoff team into a title contender if he can bounce back. I’m not confident if it can or will happen, but I’m sure as hell going to be rooting for it to happen. Gurley remains the man and might need saving from Los Angeles and/or Jeff Fisher ASAP.
Waverly Chargers (3-5) – Connor Lenahan: Dez Bryant
Well, Dez Bryant’s Chargers debut was a success that was overshadowed by the fact that my team apparently hates me. The Chargers remain one of the best teams in the XFL in theory while floating outside of the playoffs. I’m by far the most biased about my own roster, but the talent assembled here should not make for a 3-5 team. Matt Stafford, Lamar Miller, Christine Michael, Giovani Bernard, Stefon Diggs, Julio Jones, and Dez Bryant represents one of the most attractive lineups in the league, save for the fact that half of them turn in bad games a week on average. The season will basically revolve around the next three weeks where the Chargers get the AJ Green-less High Rollers, struggling Kansas City Killers, and league-leading Oklahoma City Lions. If the Chargers aren’t at least 5-6 at the end of that stretch, the season is over. Dez Bryant gives the offense a dimension that was lost when Keenan Allen was hurt in Week 1, and Bryant could help boost the roster as a whole now that the Cowboys look like Super Bowl contenders. If he doesn’t perform then the Chargers will go down as one of the most frustrating teams in recent memory for the league.
Kansas City Killers (3-5) – Dan Schlosser: Theo Riddick
The Kansas City Killers have had an odd season thus far, highlighted(?) by the struggles of Carson Palmer and Antonio Brown, as well as some simply annoying injury luck. Once upon a time this backfield was supposed to be Thomas Rawls and Dion Lewis, one that wasn’t quite David Johnson/Matt Forte but still intriguing, but both are out for extended time and haven’t been seen much or at all so far. The true steal that the Killers have? Theo Riddick, who is playing far better than one would expect. When adjusting for his two-game absence due to injury, Riddick is averaging roughly the same points per game as Christine Michael, who is the 16th best back in fantasy. Again, that’s also handicapping Riddick’s numbers by two games. Theo has thrice eclipsed 200 points on the season playing in the suddenly dynamic Lions offense. Should he stay healthy he will help the Killers greatly down the stretch. The Killers are both feisty and lifeless, a paradox of a team, one that should be completely out of the running yet are only one game out of the playoffs. I think Dan Schlosser has some surprises in store late, and I think Riddick can help keep the Killers stay alive late.
Seattle Rage (2-6) – Greg Fenn: Aaron Rodgers
This pick is more simple than most. The Rage has been unlucky all season and has lost two of their best players – Doug Martin and Carlos Hyde – to injury for most of the season so far. Now both look to rejoin their teams at some point, but the Rage will need to pick up wins quickly to make a playoff run. Aaron Rodgers is one of the few players that could drag a team to victory, and he’s going to have to until the running backs are healthy once again. In Aaron Greg trusts.
Green Bay Blizzard (0-8) – Matt Bruzzano: Ezekiel Elliott or David Johnson in 2017
Sometimes the football gods just deal you bad blow after bad blow. Matt Bruzzano has taken more than his fair share on the chin this season, and hopefully, he will pick up his first win soon. But if there’s any silver lining to a largely unlucky season? Bru is in pole position to grab one of the most amazing players in the game with the top pick next year.
Week 9 Matchups
Waverly Chargers vs. Las Vegas High Rollers
Baltimore Bears vs. New York Titans
Green Bay Blizzard vs. Seattle Rage
Chicago Hitmen vs. Philadelphia Panthers
Kansas City Killers vs. Washington Senators
Oklahoma City Lions vs. Pittsburgh Spikes
Denver Blaze vs. New Orleans Tigers