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Six UFL stars with NFL potential

2WYY3AH WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 07: DC Defenders offensive lineman Liam Fornadel (77) in the trenches during the UFL football game between the Houston Roughnecks and the DC Defenders on April 7, 2024, at Audi Field in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Lee Coleman/Icon Sportswire) (Icon Sportswire via AP Images)

Spring football is an opportunity for players to showcase their skills and get back to the highest level — the NFL. Some have tasted pro action before, while others are still searching for NFL snaps. Here are six UFL players who have consistently shined in spring football and deserve another look, or a first look, from NFL squads.

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Editor’s Note: This is not an exhaustive list of UFL players with NFL potential

QB A.J. McCarron, St. Louis Battlehawks

To say McCarron has NFL potential is stating the obvious. He was a 2014 fifth-round pick of the Cincinnati Bengals and is a seasoned backup at the NFL level.

McCarron has thrown just six passes as an NFL quarterback since 2020 but rejoined the Bengals in 2023 as they endured quarterback injuries, fresh off an XFL season with the St. Louis Battlehawks in which he stuffed the stat sheet with 24 passing touchdowns, 2,158 passing yards and 16 big-time throws.

The 33-year-old looks solid once more to open the inaugural UFL season with the Battlehawks. Through two weeks, he ranks first among quarterbacks in PFF overall grade (82.5), passing yards (464) and big-time throws (four).

TE Cody Latimer, San Antonio Brahmas

A 2014 second-round pick of the Denver Broncos, Latimer never panned out as an NFL wide receiver. He spent six seasons in the league, with his last snaps coming in 2019. He has since found a home in spring football as a tight end — and arguably the UFL’s best.

Latimer never hauled in fewer than three passes in a game with the XFL’s Orlando Guardians in 2023, and he graded out as the league’s top tight end (86.6) after recording a position-leading 13 contested catches. The San Antonio Brahmas added Latimer this offseason via the UFL Dispersal Draft, and he leads the position in catches, yards and yards after the catch through two weeks.

G Liam Fornadel, D.C. Defenders

Offensive line depth is a hot commodity in the NFL, and any spring football player who manages two consecutive seasons of solid play deserves a shot at filling out a team’s unit as a sixth or seventh option. Fornadel fits the bill as a right guard who earned 70.0-plus PFF overall grades in each of his final three seasons at James Madison from 2019 to 2021 before doing the same with the XFL’s D.C. Defenders in 2023.

Fornadel allowed 13 quarterback pressures on a 407-snap pass-blocking workload last season, including only one sack. He blocked for the league’s top rushing attack and is back to excelling in 2024. He has let up just three pressures two weeks into the UFL season while maintaining an above-average run-blocking grade (65.8).

G Shamarious Gilmore, Houston Roughnecks

Like Liam Fornadel, Gilmore brings consistency to his blocking that NFL teams should covet when filling out their offensive line depth. The Georgia State product, an undrafted free agent in the 2022 class, allowed only eight sacks on more than 2,000 pass-blocking snaps across five college seasons before joining the USFL’s Philadelphia Stars in 2023. He finished the campaign as the Stars’ highest-graded offensive player.

Now with the UFL’s Houston Roughnecks, Gilmore has been relegated to a part-time role, playing 21 snaps through two games. Still, he is the team’s highest-graded offensive lineman (73.0) and has yet to allow a sack or be downgraded on a run-blocking snap.

EDGE Dondrea Tillman, Birmingham Stallions

Tillman is arguably the most deserving of an NFL opportunity based on his body of work in spring football. NFL teams have worked him out in past years, but a roster spot continues to elude him.

No spring football pass rusher comes close to matching Tillman’s production since 2022. His 113 quarterback pressures over the span are 33 more than second place, his 13 batted passes beat out No. 2 by six and his 91.7 PFF overall grade is the outright top mark among edge defenders. Through two weeks of the 2024 UFL campaign, he has forced one fumble, tallied six quarterback pressures and recorded three stops on his way to the top PFF overall grade (92.0) at the position.

Highest-Graded Spring Football Pass Rushers | 2022-2024
PFF Overall Grade QB Pressures Pass-Rushing Snaps
Dondrea Tillman 91.7 113 749
Chris Odom 91.3 62 286
Delontae Scott 90.9 31 234
Drew Beesley 90.7 35 236
Tim Ward 90.4 28 194

DI Toby Johnson, Houston Roughnecks

Johnson played 23 snaps in the NFL, all in 2016 with the Minnesota Vikings, after bouncing around between a few practice squads. He has since become a fixture of non-NFL football, playing in the National Arena League, the XFL, the USFL and now the UFL.

Johnson’s 2022 campaign with the New Jersey Generals is the highlight of his resume. His profile that year included an elite 90.5 PFF overall grade, 25 quarterback pressures and 20 stops — all of which ranked top three or better among interior defenders. The 32-year-old Johnson isn’t letting up in 2024 as a member of the Houston Roughnecks, ranking third at the position in PFF overall grade (85.0).

K Jake Bates, Michigan Panthers

Bates may already have an NFL roster spot locked up through two weeks of UFL action. The 2023 undrafted free agent has hit 64-yard, 62-yard and 52-yard field goals with relative ease and is reportedly gaining the attention of some NFL teams. You can't say much about a kicker who is consistently hitting from 60-plus yards other than that they belong in the NFL.

Honorable Mentions: RB Mark Thompson (injured), RB Abram Smith (injured), WR Jahcour Pearson (injured), EDGE Ronheen Bingham, EDGE Taco Charlton, CB Lorenzo Burns, KR/WR Marcus Simms

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