Thursday, May 19, 2022

USFL Power Rankings, Week 1: Tampa Bay Bandits the top-ranked team heading into season

At long last, the USFL is set to kick off its inaugural season under the league’s latest iteration this weekend in Birmingham, Alabama. 

Of course, football fans have grown accustomed to having spring leagues on the sports calendar over the last few years amid the NFL offseason with the XFL and AAF making brief appearances. Unlike those leagues, however, the USFL will look to go wire-to-wire in its first season and complete the 12-week dash that will conclude with the championship game on July 3. 

In all, there are eight teams in the USFL that are bunched into two divisions — North Division and South Division. While we’re still waiting for the season to kick off on Saturday, we have compiled our preseason power rankings of these eight clubs by breaking down the rosters, the coaching staff, and the betting odds of who’ll be the last team standing when the season is all said and done. 

Teams are listed along with their odds to win the 2022 USFL championship. All odds via Caesars Sportsbook.

1. Tampa Bay Bandits (+450)

For my money, the Bandits have the best coach-quarterback combo in the league. Head coach Todd Haley is likely best known for being the offensive coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers from 2012 to 2017. Specifically toward the back half of his tenure, the Steelers offense was routinely inside the top 10 in points and total yards. He now is paired with quarterback Jordan Ta’amu (the No. 2 pick in the USFL draft), who made a name for himself in the XFL. In the five games played for the St. Louis Battlehawks, Ta’amu had a passer rating of 101.3 and completed 72% of his passes. He also averaged 5.3 yards per carry. That showing allowed the Ole Miss product to bounce around the NFL for the past two seasons. Most recently, he was briefly signed to the Carolina Panthers practice squad. 

B.J. Emmons and Juwan Washington are an intriguing backfield pairing. Fellow receiver John Franklin III also spent some time with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 2019 to 2020. 

The Bandits’ defensive side of the ball also has some NFL experience, including safety Obi Melifonwu, who is a former second-round pick of the Raiders

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2. Michigan Panthers (+450)

The Panthers have a solid coach-quarterback combo heading into the regular season in Jeff Fisher and former Michigan signal-caller Shea Patterson. The 25-year-old was the No. 1 overall pick in the USFL draft back in February and has a college résumé that includes a 144.2 passer rating during his two years at Michigan in 2018 and 2019. More recently, Patterson has traveled around the CFL, having stints with the BC Lions and Montreal Alouettes. That said, Patterson didn’t see much (if any) playing time. Along with Patterson, Michigan did add former Denver Broncos quarterback Paxton Lynch, a first-round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, so they do have options under center. 

Fisher has 15 seasons of coaching experience in the NFL and is probably the most recognizable coach in the league at the moment. 

Elsewhere on the roster, they have players who have had a cup of coffee in the NFL or various other spring leagues, which makes them decently deep.

3. New Orleans Breakers (+450)

The Breakers picked last in the first round of the USFL draft, meaning they were the last team to pluck a quarterback and place him on their roster. They ended up with Kyle Sloter, who played his college ball at Northern Colorado. 

Sloter was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Broncos in 2017 and ended up having a solid preseason with the club — 125.4 passer rating — but was waived during final cuts. Since then, he’s bounced around the NFL, making stops on various practice squads, including the Vikings, Cardinals, and Lions. If Sloter plays as he did during that preseason run in Denver in 2017, the Breakers could be a team to watch. Meanwhile, he’ll be able to throw to receivers Shawn Poindexter and Johnnie Dixon, who had productive college careers at Arizona and Ohio State, respectively. 

New Orleans also had its pick of the litter for edge rushers in the second round and picked up former Georgia pass rusher Davin Bellamy to help solidify the front seven. 

4. Philadelphia Stars (+550)

Bryan Scott will be under center for the Stars and could be a sleeper QB to monitor. He beat out Zach Mettenberger for the starting job of the Generals in The Spring League in 2020 and led his club to an undefeated 4-0 season to win the title. He was also named MVP of The Spring League. While Scott has no NFL experience, he has flirted with teams in the past and worked out for the Indianapolis Colts in February of 2021. While his success in The Spring League may not be much to truly hang your hat on, it’s noteworthy as he’s set to play at the USFL level. 

5. Pittsburgh Maulers (+550)

There’s a little uncertainty at the quarterback position here for the Maulers. They took Kyle Lauletta with their top pick and also boast Josh Love. Lauletta is a former fourth-round pick of the New York Giants out of Richmond and caught the eyes of scouts with his three-touchdown performance at the 2018 Senior Bowl, where he earned MVP honors. Meanwhile, Love is a bit younger and has had minimal NFL experience as he spent a brief time on both the Rams and Panthers. Lauletta will likely get the nod in Week 1, but it’ll be interesting to see how this position plays out. 

As you may expect in what is set to be a developmental league, there are a lot of unknowns and players that lack NFL experience throughout the roster, making them a wildcard as we enter the season. 

6. Birmingham Stallions (+700)

Birmingham picked sixth in the first round and took former FIU quarterback Alex McGough to lead the team into the season. McGough is a former seventh-round pick of the Seattle Seahawks back in 2017 and has also hopped on the Jaguars and Texans rosters over the last few years. During his final collegiate season, he completed 65.4% of his throws and had a passer rating of 142.9. He’ll be throwing to the likes of former Oregon State receiver Victor Bolden Jr., who was the top wideout taken in the USFL draft. The Stallions are also said to be one of the deeper defenses in the league entering the year, even if they may be lacking some legit NFL talent throughout the roster. 

7. Houston Gamblers (+700)

While the Gamblers may be on the bottom half of this list to begin the year, they have one of the best names in the USFL for my money, which is a win in itself. They picked former Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson in the first round. He was a former fifth-round pick of the Philadelphia Eagles in 2019 and has been around the NFC East (Eagles, Cowboys, and Giants) throughout his young career. He could prove to be something a dual-threat quarterback in the USFL as he is the only quarterback in Big Ten history to pass for 10,000 yards and rush for 20 touchdowns in his career, which would a wrinkle into the Gamblers offense. 

In the backfield, Dalyn Dawkins has 11 carries in the NFL and has a productive collegiate career out of Colorado State to lean on. At receiver, Isaiah Zuber is a name to watch. He only has two catches at the NFL level but was impressive in small spurts with the New England Patriots

Defensively, there is not much experience on coach Kevin Sumlin’s roster. 

8. New Jersey Generals (+900)

The Generals currently have the worst odds to win the USFL Championship this year. Does that mean anything just before the season? Not really. You could make a case that this is good value given how bunched up these teams likely are. They have Mike Riley, who has two Grey Cup titles to his name, leading the way as head coach. The team also drafted both Ben Holmes and De’Andre Johnson to compete at quarterback. Holmes has since been released, and the team signed Luis Perez — who once tried to be a professional bowler and had some success in the AAF.

In the backfield, former Ohio State running back and seventh-round pick of the Dallas Cowboys Mike Weber could be handling the bulk of the touches. For the Buckeyes, Weber has two 1,000-yard rushing seasons and averaged 6.1 yards per carry during his final collegiate season in 2018. 

The front seven doesn’t have many recognizable names to speak of, but they do have a solid secondary that includes cornerbacks De’Vante Bausby and Howard Wilson, along with safety Shalom Luani

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