Peter King is on vacation until July 18, and he lined up some guest writers to fill his Monday spot on Football Morning in America. Today’s guest is Paul Burmeister, a play-by-play voice and studio host for NBC Sports.
So with acknowledgement that I may have buried the lead, let’s get right to it: Which USFL players will we see in the NFL this fall?
I went right to the source: Jim Popp, USFL Director of Player Personnel. Playing defensive back at Michigan State for Nick Saban in the mid-80s set up Popp for more than three decades in professional football personnel, primarily in the Canadian Football League, where he was a part of 11 Grey Cups, winning five of them.
“The NFL isn’t coming [to the USFL] looking for a starters,” Popp told me. “The potential for these players lies in the back end of an NFL roster, which is constantly being overturned.”
Popp followed up with two points to keep in mind when considering which USFL players might be in the NFL this fall:
• Because of Covid and the extra season of eligibility granted to college players, the pool of undrafted free agent rookies was larger than ever.
• The abundance of young, available and willing players would cost the teams less money than signing USFL players. According to Spotrac, the minimum salary for rookies this season is $705,000; second-year players $870,000; third-year players $940,000.
Since most of the players in the USFL have had an NFL cup of coffee, or two or three, they’re more expensive. They potentially fill the same roster spot and play the same role for more money.
Those hurdles are reality this summer. But they’re not barriers. They won’t prevent the USFL’s best from getting a shot.
So, who will get the chance to beat the odds?
Michigan Panthers RB Reggie Corbin
Corbin was the first name out of Popp’s mouth. The Panthers running back led the USFL in rushing yards per game.
I called his final regular season game last week against the Pittsburgh Maulers. The Pittsburgh head coach is Kirby Wilson, who spent 23 seasons as an NFL running backs coach. With his RB expertise, I asked, “Which running back impressed you the most this season?” He answered quickly: Reggie Corbin.
I also asked Corbin’s own coach, Jeff Fisher, an NFL head coach of 20 seasons, which of his Panthers players belonged in the NFL. He started with Corbin.
Corbin, 26, is still waiting for his first shot in the NFL. He averaged 6 yards per carry in rushing for over 2,000 yards at Illinois from 2016-19. But Corbin didn’t play in a game of any kind from 2020 until the USFL this spring.
His one and only NFL chance became a Covid casualty. The Seahawks flew in Corbin for a workout late in 2021, but when he tested positive for Covid upon arrival in Seattle. Instead of going to the facility to try out, he went to a hotel. For a week and half, he waited for the green light. The Covid cases were so high in the NFL at that point of the season, he was sent home, before he could even work out.
“Heartbreaking” was the last word he said to me about that experience.
So now he awaits a call, confident it will come. “I’m grateful for the USFL,” Corbin told me.
Houston Gamblers LB Donald Payne
Donald Payne came in with an NFL résumé that got my attention before the season started.
- Four seasons in the NFL
- 30 games played
In 2017 for the Jaguars, Payne was in the top three for special teams tackles in the NFL. He stuck with Jacksonville in 2018, and in 2019, he started the last five games of the season. Payne produced at an eye-opening level, recording at least 12 tackles in all five games.
But Payne needed surgery on both feet after the season, and the Jaguars released him prior to the 2020 season. He spent some time on the Washington practice squad that year and went to training camp with San Francisco in 2021 but didn’t make the team.
The USFL gave Payne a chance to prove he was healthy, and to remind NFL scouts that even as an undersized middle linebacker (6-0, 225), he wouldn’t get swallowed up inside, could fend off 330-pound linemen and run down backs.
The final regular-season Defensive Player of the Week award belongs to @USFLGamblers LB @7PayneTrain 🎲🔒 pic.twitter.com/nAozNx01xG
— USFL (@USFL) June 21, 2022
“We all came to the USFL with different whys,” Payne told me. “Mine wasn’t to get back to an NFL camp. I’m on a mission to get back to an NFL 53.”
Two games into the USFL season, Payne served notice, racking up 34 tackles. By the end of the season, he was the only USFL player with over 100. “I needed the USFL to portray I’m still the same Donald I was in 2019,” he said. “I did what I had to do.”
The odds are against Payne and his USFL comrades as they eye roster spots in the NFL. But Johnston brought up a point to consider.
“Our guys are in football shape,” Johnston said. “That’s an advantage versus players who have been in shorts and have only done minicamps and OTAs. I’m excited to see what happens when the pads come on because they’re already used to it.”
New Jersey Generals WR/PR KaVontae Turpin
Turpin, the USFL MVP, led the league in receiving yards on a team that ran the ball more than any other in the league. And he showed his game-breaking abilities over the weekend with a punt return touchdown against Philadelphia in the semifinals.
THE MVP WITH THE GO-AHEAD TOUCHDOWN ‼️🏆
What a run by @KaVontaeTurpin
📺: @FOXSports pic.twitter.com/LNUy5c5iit
— New Jersey Generals (@USFLGenerals) June 25, 2022
In production meetings, New Jersey coach Mike Reilly spoke of how much fun he was having devising different ways to get Turpin the ball.
Popp almost ran out of ways to describe him: “Electric. Fast. Quick. Makes you miss. Can take a hit.”
I think Turpin is an excellent candidate to make a team as a fourth or fifth wide receiver, and primary punt returner.
Houston Gamblers DE Chris Odom
Odom led the league in sacks and forced fumbles. Not bad for a player whose calling card was stopping the run before getting to the USFL.
Odom is 27 and has NFL experience with Atlanta, Washington and Green Bay. When I asked him which of those stops made the biggest impression on him, he didn’t hesitate: Green Bay.
Odom was with the Packers for the 2017 season. He had always been a “hand on the ground” defensive end, but in Green Bay’s scheme, defensive ends Clay Matthews and Nick Perry stood up, often looking like outside linebackers. This gave Odom a whole new view of the offense and a compete skill set as a defensive end. He displayed that in dominating the USFL this spring.