Sunday, February 5

USFL Draft 2022: Three teams that agreed Day 1

By Rob Rang
FOX Sports Draft Analyst

Football fans eager for next season to begin were rewarded Tuesday, with the USFL conduct the first 12 rounds of its inaugural draft.

The draft will conclude Wednesday with the league’s eight teams going through rounds 13-35 to fill out their squads.

Recognizing the importance of critical positions such as quarterback and edge rusher in building their initial rosters, the USFL opted for a unique approach to the draft, mandating the positional groups for teams to pick from each round.

Each team had to select a quarterback in the first round, for example, with edge rushers and defensive ends eligible in rounds two through four, offensive tackles in rounds five through seven, cornerbacks in rounds eight through 11 and a return to quarterbacks in Tuesday’s final round.

The USFL’s unique drafting rules did not end there. In an attempt to ensure the equality (and excitement) of the draft, the initial order was determined by a lottery held Thursday. Further, the selection order changed in an analytically-modified snake format, giving each franchise the top selection for two positions over the course of the two-day draft—and, just as importantly, the final picks for other positions.

At first glance, it appears the USFL’s goal of parity was successful. But after taking each of the eight teams’ Day 1 picks into consideration, I believe there were three clear-cut winners: the Tampa Bay Bandits, Birmingham Stallions and Pittsburgh Maulers.

Tampa Bay Bandits

Given their mascot, perhaps it was appropriate the Bandits began their draft by stealing the most talented quarterback in the draft, Jordan Ta’amu, with the No. 2 overall pick. Ta’amu offers an exceptional combination of arm talent and athleticism, which Tampa Bay coach Todd Haley likely can’t wait to develop.

After playing only two years at Mississippi, Ta’amu remains a bit raw, but he has flashed undeniable touch and accuracy in his time in the SEC and since.

Tampa Bay’s decision to gamble on upside did not end with the quarterback. Second-round pick Mekhi Brown flashed talent at Tennessee State (after transferring from Alabama) that makes him a promising force on the edge.

When discussing athletic traits, however, third- and fourth-round edge rushers Michael (Mike) Scott (Oklahoma State) and Adam Shuler (Florida) certainly pass the eye test. Shuler caught scouts’ eyes back at West Virginia before he moved on to the Gators as a grad transfer, starting 23 of 26 possible games in Gainesville, where he collected six of his nine career sacks. Like Brown and Scott, Shuler has the length and closing speed to finish.

Haley and the Tampa Bay scouts’ focus on prospects from Power 5 programs continued at offensive tackle in rounds five through seven — a strategy I believe will pay off nicely. The team was the last to draft an offensive tackle but found a former Georgia standout in Tyler Catalina at the end of the fifth.

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The Bandits also landed a monster of a pick later in Corbin Kaufusi, a 6-foot-9, 325-pound former BYU linebacker, defensive lineman and offensive tackle who has since spent time as a developmental blocker with the New Orleans Saints, New York Jets and San Francisco 49ers.

It is easier to protect the corner when one understands what pass-rushers are attempting to do, and Kaufusi gets that.

While I think the Bandits might have stolen a quality (and versatile) lineman in Kaufusi, Haley had his choice of cornerbacks in the eighth round, and he landed a good one by staying out west with former Colorado standout Delrick Abrams Jr., a 6 -foot-3, 180-pounder who registered 96 tackles and 10 passes broken up in two seasons starting in the pass-happy Pac-12.

Scouts at every level, in fact, have long been intrigued by Abrams’ length and physicality.

Haley prioritized cornerbacks with size and physicality over ball skills throughout Day 1, in fact, with Davante Davis (6-foot-3, 200 pounds) and Christian Campbell (6-foot-1, 191 pounds) from Texas and Penn State, respectively .

All in all, Tampa Bay’s strategy of size, physicality and experience playing against blue-chip talent makes this my favorite class from the first day of the 2022 USFL draft.

Birmingham Stallions

With every game in this inaugural USFL season to be played in Birmingham, some theorized the hometown club had to win Tuesday’s draft to electrify the local fan base.

If that was indeed the case, consider Tuesday’s efforts a game-winning touchdown for head coach Skip Holtz and his scouts as the club nabbed an inspirational playmaker in dual-threat quarterback Alex McGough to start off their draft and followed up with some of the boldest moves of Day 1.

Along with Russell Wilson, McGough is the only quarterback to have been selected by the Seattle Seahawks since coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider joined forces back in 2010. It is easy to see why they — and a handful of NFL teams since have brought in McGough, as the four-year starter at Florida International possesses the bazooka-like arm and slithery athleticism to leave defenders gasping.

McGough has the raw playmaking ability to make Birmingham’s class a winner, but it is the gambles on greatness made by Holtz and his scouts throughout the rest of the draft that make this group one of the USFL’s most intriguing.

Take the Stallions’ second pick — edge rusher Aaron Adeoye, for example. The 6-foot-6, 260-pounder spent most of his collegiate eligibility playing basketball but showed enough in his final year at Southeast Missouri State to earn a chance in indoor arena leagues (including for the Birmingham Iron) and eventually the Baltimore Ravens.

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Adeoye might still be raw, but his upside is undeniable — as is that of his new edge-rushing counterparts, Chauncy Haney and Seth Thomas (Northern Iowa).

Haney, hailing from tiny North Greenville, stood out at the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl All-Star Game practices two years ago with his slippery suddenness off the corner, as you can see in the clip below. Thomas was just as impressive in his opportunities against top talent.

Seeking to make a strong edge-rushing class a potentially dominating unit, Birmingham was one of two teams (along with the New Orleans Breakers) to use a compensatory pick to select an extra edge rusher, landing Jonathan Newsome from Ball State to wrap up the fourth round.

It is perhaps fortunate that Birmingham invested in an athletic quarterback and a bevy of pass rushers, as its tackles are similarly raw. The football-loving Birmingham fans will no doubt appreciate the presence of former UAB standout Justice Powers, however.

The real dark horses for the Stallions’ Day 1 picks, however, might very well prove to be their top choices among defensive backs.

Former Utah star Brian Allen and North Carolina Central’s Bryan Mills have the length scouts are looking for in today’s modern cornerbacks and should be able to slather receivers at the catch-point in this league — especially given the pass rush Birmingham should enjoy.

Pittsburgh Maulers

Head coach Kirby Smith and the Maulers were the second-to-last team to select a quarterback, but they still nabbed one with plenty of NFL experience and a penchant for playing well in prime-time opportunities in former Richmond star Kyle Lauletta at No. 7 overall.

Lauletta is not the same caliber of dual-threat as some of this year’s other top quarterbacks, but his anticipation, accuracy and pocket awareness arguably make him the most “pro-ready” of this crop. He was outstanding in the 2018 Senior Bowl, earning MVP honors with three touchdown tosses, and his spectacular ball placement was just as evident throughout the week of practice.

While stellar quarterback play is critical to success, the tradition in “Blitzburgh” is defense, and the Maulers lived up to that with their selection of former Michigan standout Carlo Kemp with the 10th overall selection.

Kemp was asked to play inside with the Wolverines, but his agility and natural playmaking ability suggest he could be even more effective outside in this league. Like Lauletta, Kemp has a track record of excelling under the brightest of lights. He was named the Hula Bowl MVP a year ago, showing the kind of awareness and acceleration needed to turn turnovers into touchdowns.

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Like they did at quarterback, Pittsburgh went back to the small school route with its third pick with East Tennessee State edge rusher Nasir Player. A twitchy, long-armed edge rusher who should prove quite the tandem with Kemp and fourth-rounder Eric Assoua (Western Michigan), Player has long been recognized as just that by some of the most respected scouts in the country.

Pittsburgh’s NFL team has long had issues at offensive tackle, but that should not be the case for the Maulers, who had their choice of the top blockers in this draft. The team nabbed arguably the top blocker in the draft in former LSU and Tennessee State bulldozer Chidi Okeke, a former five-star recruit despite the fact he only came to the United States and began playing organized football in 2013 after growing up in Nigeria.

Okeke has the raw talent scouts from every league are looking to develop, but he remains raw, which is why the club’s next two picks, Isaiah Battle and Charles Baldwin, might push him for playing time early on. Battle, a former standout at Clemson and fifth-round NFL supplemental draft pick by the then-St. Louis Rams, is one of my favorite blockers of this class.

While it might take Pittsburgh’s offensive line some time to sort things out (especially given that their quarterback is not as fleet of foot as some of his classmates), the Maulers’ secondary is filled with playmakers. The best of the bunch is former USC standout Ajene Harris, a versatile and physical defender capable of playing inside and on the boundary with a track record of creating turnovers.

Forcing turnovers is something Smith and his scouts clearly prioritized as the team’s next pick, fellow cornerback Prince Robinson, nabbed three pick-sixes of his own for Tarleton State — in his senior year alone.

The Maulers currently lack the girth throughout their roster that their moniker suggests. The Pittsburgh “Playmakers” might be a better fit.

One of the most recognized names in the industry, Rob Rang has been covering the NFL Draft for more than 20 years, with work at FOX, Sports Illustrated, CBSSports.comUSAToday, Yahoo, and NFLDraftScout.comamong others.

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