For most folks, football season is over following the Super Bowl. However, over the last couple of seasons some of us diehard football nuts have had some bonus football to look forward to – and no, I’m not talking about when the Pro Bowl used to be played the week after the big game!
I’m talking about other leagues.
Last year, the Alliance of American Football (or AAF) launched. With one primary investor who had a “kill switch” to terminate the league whenever he saw fit, the inaugural season was prematurely ended before it finished. That was much to the dismay of fans who enjoyed games that had a faster pace, albeit featuring “lesser” talent.
Several of those players met their goal of getting signed (or re-signed) to NFL teams following the folding of the league. Many didn’t make it, while others impressed enough to have a regular role on teams, such as S Kam Kelly, who started early on for the Steelers.
With the AAF long gone, another league has risen from the ashes of unsuccessful pro football leagues: the XFL. Originally instated in 2001, the organization had a single season before folding operations. It was that season, however, that gifted the Steelers a Comeback Player of the Year in the NFL: quarterback Tommy Maddox.
With the XFL returning nearly twenty years later here in 2020, there are a smattering of players who either had a shot of playing with the Steelers or actually did. Headlining them is the XFL’s first signee, former Pittsburgh quarterback Landry Jones.
Jones, though currently injured, has rejoined his former college coach Bob Stoops as highlights of the fledgling Dallas Renegades.
While my eyes are firmly focused on that team, others may be looking for guidance on who to watch and why. With no franchise in Pittsburgh, or remotely close either, it may be hard to decide on who to hitch your saddles to.
Below is a list of players with ties to the Steelers and which of the eight new teams they are linked to, along with some reminder of who or what they did while in the Steel City.
Note: All players listed below are currently verified as appearing on an active XFL roster as of February 4th, 2020.
- QB Landry Jones
- DE Winston Craig
- LB Tegray Scales
- CB Dashaun Phillips
Unfortunately, Landry Jones suffered a knee injury and could be out a few more weeks before making his XFL debut with the Renegades. In a bit of irony, Jones will be wearing the number 12, which has been unofficially retired by the Steelers (Terry Bradshaw).
Renegades defenders all made a preseason impact with Pittsburgh in recent years. Craig was in training camp with the Steelers in 2019 after previously playing with the Birmingham Iron of the AAF. Scales was a standout in college who was recovering from a serious injury and got lost in a sea of linebackers during last year's camp, while Phillips marginally made headlines during a preseason trade with the Washington Redskins, where he had seen some substantial playing time, but eventually did not make the active 53-man roster.
While everyone remembers Eli Rogers for his hard hat and long sleeve t-shirts under his jerseys (even in the middle of the day during Summer practices), some may have forgotten about some defensive backs the Steelers were high on selecting to shore up their secondary. Thomas had the enviable shoes of Troy Polamalu to fill, while Grant may be best known for a pick-six in preseason, but failing to stick to the roster otherwise as a former fourth round pick.
*Tyler Palka had a brief flirt with the Steelers, with an invite to their minicamp. A former quarterback at Saginaw Valley State, Palka became a renowned wide receiver at Gannon University (Erie, Pennsylvania) during his senior season in 2017. (Palka would not sign any long-term deal with the Steelers. However, I felt he should be listed due to his Western, Pennsylvania ties.)
Maybe the highest-drafted and highest-profile of the former Steelers playing in this new league, Sammie Coates had a five-week streak of 40-plus touchdown receptions before breaking his fingers in his breakout game several years ago against the New York Jets. The former third-round pick looks to take the XFL by storm and show he still has the talent that made him a sensation in the Steel City for a short period.
Palmer may be best remembered as a signing in late July of 2015 which saw another camp favorite, Jordan Dangerfield, get released from the team to make room for the move.
Lyons was a waiver claim by the Steelers, who then was released from the active roster and re-signed to the practice squad, where he would remain off and on over the course of two seasons.
Johnny Maxey would get called up to the Steelers active roster from the practice squad on Christmas Eve of 2016, ahead of the famous Christmas Day "Immaculate Extension" game against the Baltimore Ravens. He would appear in two games, but would fail to be retained the following season.
Los Angeles Wildcats
- RB DuJuan Harris
- SAF Jack Tocho
Harris isn't a name most Steelers fans would recognize. His career spans all the way back to 2011. In 2012 he was claimed off waivers by Pittsburgh, but would be released four days later ahead of the regular season.
Jack Tocho played with the Birmingham Iron of the AAF last year and came to training camp for the Steelers in 2019. The former NC State product was one of the higher-profile AAF-to-NFL signings following the league's folding.
New York Guardians
- C Garrett Brumfield
- CB Jamar Summers
- S Dravon Askew-Henry
- K Matt McCrane
- Coach/GM Kevin Gilbride
Brumfield and Askew-Henry spent time with the Steelers during the 2019 training camp, while Summers was a sensation during the 2018 camp. Summers would fail to make the cut and also played for the AAF's Iron last season. Like Tocho, he was another high profile signing, albeit with another team.
Matt McCrane made waves in Pittsburgh when he replaced Chris Boswell (placed on IR) for the final week of the 2018 season. McCrane would attempt, and make, all three of his field goal attempts and a PAT in a 16-13 win over the Bengals: a welcome sight after Boswell's struggles that season.
Kevin Gilbride spent two seasons as the Steelers offensive coordinator in 1999 and 2000.
St. Louis Battlehawks
- WR L’Damian Washington
- DT Casey Sayles
- LB Terence Garvin
- Coach/GM Jonathan Hayes
- Coach Tim Lewis
Washington was a pickup by the Steelers in early 2015 who sustained a gruesome injury and was waived with an injury settlement during offseason workouts.
Sayles had been a camp participant in 2018 and 2019, also notably playing with the Steelers affiliated AAF Iron.
Garvin could be the highest tenured former NFL player in the entire XFL. He spent three years with the Steelers as a special teams standout and may be best remembered for breaking the jaw of Bengals punter Kevin Huber during an Antonio Brown punt return for a touchdown.
Head Coach and General Manager Jonathan Hayes is a former Steelers tight end who played between 1994 and 1996. Hayes is also a native of Pittsburgh suburb South Fayette Township.
Tim Lewis is a former defensive backs coach and defensive coordinator, who spent time under Bill Cowher from 1995-2003. He was also the head coach of the AAF's Birmingham Iron last season.
Williams and Clear both appeared for the Steelers during offseason and camp workouts in the past.
Johnson was a lower profile offseason signing who wasn't expected to be much more than depth and a special teams player back in 2016; behind Lawrence Timmons, Ryan Shazier, and Vince Williams on the depth chart.
He would be the subject of several catch/release moves between the active roster and the practice squad, before being released for the final time by the Steelers in September of 2017.
Ever the underdog, the former college walk-on would go on to play for the Baltimore Ravens and also the Arizona Hotshots of the AAF.
Tampa Bay Vipers
- S Marcelis Branch
The lone "former" Steelers on Tampa's roster, Branch was a local standout at Robert Morris University and participated in Pittsburgh's training camp last season before being part of the final round of cuts heading into the regular season.
Wait, what? If you thought there were only eight teams in the XFL, you are gravely mistaken!
Team 9 is essentially an extra squad stocked with players available to fill open roster spots on any team in the league at any time. Say the St. Louis BattleHawks lose a safety in Week 2, they can “call up” a football-ready replacement in time to face the New York Guardians in Week 3.
Two names with ties to the Steelers is on the official Team 9 roster which began practice on February 3rd: tight end Pharoah McKever and linebacker Darnell Leslie.
McKever was an undrafted college free agent signed by the Steelers in April of 2018. He spent all of training camp with the team before final cuts to the 53-man roster September 1st of that same year.
Leslie signed a futures contract with the Steelers in January of 2018, but would be released midway through camp in an transaction which involved Pittsburgh adding another tight end, Bucky Hodges.
Several other former Steelers, as it stands by the definition for this article, participated in the XFL's preseason but are currently free agents. Here's a list of those players who are not on a current XFL roster as of the date noted above on this article.
- QB Brogan Roback
- WR Demarcus Ayers
- WR Damoun Patterson
- LB Matthew Thomas
- CB Trey Johnson
- K Garrett Hartley
Roback was signed to the Steelers offseason roster but would lose his spot as the fourth quarterback heading into camp following the rookie camp workout of Devlin Hodges.
Ayers, who saw some playing time late during his rookie season with the Steelers, was drafted by New York, but was waived on January 28th.
Damoun Patterson was a highlight reel at wide receiver during his stay with the team during the 2018 preseason, as was undrafted linebacker Matthew Thomas, who eventually made the 53 and was so fast that he was used as a gunner on special teams.
Trey Johnson, a standout FCS defensive back at Villanova, spent his offseason with the Steelers on IR. He had a regular weekly segment on the Steel City Underground Podcast entitled "Trey's Corner".
Garrett Hartley was the first kicker signed as Shaun Suisham's replacement, but also suffered an injury in the preseason back in 2015. Attempting a comeback to football, he could not get medical clearance for an artificial disk in his neck. (Seattle's XFL team does not have a kicker currently listed on their roster, further suggesting they could make another move in the days heading into kickoff weekend.)