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Labriola on interesting XFL, undrafted players

Ready or not, here it comes:

• One of the interesting facets of every training camp is getting a look at the undrafted rookies and the futures contract signees to see whether any of them can make a real run at either a spot on the roster or on the practice squad. Often referred to as "camp phenoms," these are the guys who attract a lot of attention during the early portion of a training camp.

• It's important to understand the difficult path these guys have to travel to be employed by the Steelers after the final cuts are made and the practice squad is assembled, but this summer, with the cancellation of OTAs and minicamps, plus the unknowns associated with the length and the composition of training camp and the preseason because of COVID-19, it's likely there will be fewer opportunities for these kinds of players to make a sufficient impression to unseat a veteran or a drafted rookie.

• When handicapping the chances of an NFL longshot, it's helpful to remember the case of Donnie Shell, who has to be considered the best undrafted rookie signing in franchise history during the Super Bowl era because he's a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Class of 2020. What really helped Shell was a players' strike during the first two months of the 1974 training camp/preseason process, which allowed players like Shell extra repetitions in practice and more playing time in the early preseason games to attract the coaches' attention. This group not only won't have that advantage, but it's fair to describe their situation as a disadvantage.

• We start with the XFL refugees:

• At 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, Blacknall fits Coach Mike Tomlin's description of a one-trick pony, and his trick is speed. Blacknall, who turned 24 in late March, ran a 4.37 in the 40-yard dash at Penn State's Pro Day in 2018. Blacknall has impressive timed speed, but it never really translated into much production from the time he enrolled at Penn State as a four-star recruit from New Jersey. In 30 college games Blacknall had 50 catches for 979 yards (19.6 average) and seven touchdowns, and then he had brief stints on practice squads in Oakland and Arizona and was waived injured by Miami.

• Speed made him a pick in the XFL's supplemental draft, but in three appearances for the Los Angeles Wildcats (he was inactive twice), Blacknall caught four passes for 120 yards and two touchdowns. Based on the competition he'll face for one of the receiver spots here and the kind of offseason he'll have to navigate to manage that, Blacknall's top end for 2020 looks like it would be a spot on the practice squad. And if he gets there, it will be because of his speed.

• A defensive tackle during his time at Notre Dame, Jones finished his college career with 19.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. Undrafted in 2017, he has spent time with the New York Giants, with Seattle (where he first was switched to offense), Dallas, Detroit, and Buffalo. Then in 2020 he was picked in the XFL's first round of its offensive linemen draft where he played for the New York Guardians.

• What Jones, who turned 26 in March, will attempt is something similar to what Alejandro Villanueva successfully pulled off on the way to becoming a Pro Bowl left tackle. Like Villanueva, Jones most likely will have to make the Steelers roster in increments, with the first step being the practice squad at the end of this summer. But the Steelers have had some success developing tackles over time (Villanueva, Matt Feiler), and there is no such thing as too many up-and-coming offensive tackles. Jones will get a chance to convince the Steelers he can be one of those.

• In scouting the XFL and determining which players might be able to add to the competition for roster spots, the Steelers concentrated their focus on guys who were productive and/or could run, because team speed is an important element in today's NFL.

• In defensive lineman CAVON WALKER, cornerbacks BREON BORDERS and ARRION SPRINGS, and safety TYREE KINNEL, the Steelers believe they lived up to that goal.

• Walker (6-2, 278) had 4.5 sacks in his final two college seasons at Maryland, and then he led the XFL with three sacks in the league's abbreviated 2020 season. Borders, Springs, and Kinnel all posted times of 4.48 in the 40-yard dash. Borders' size (6-0, 198) likely will have him working as an outside cornerback, while Springs (5-10, 208) should get a chance at both the outside and slot positions. Kinnel (5-11, 210) posted his best college season at Michigan in 2017 when he had 66 tackles, a sack, two interceptions, and five passes defensed, and the Steelers like his potential as a versatile backup safety who also could contribute on special teams.


• When a team is willing to trade up 10 spots in the first round from No. 20 overall to No. 10 overall, it has a chance to draft an inside linebacker such as Devin Bush who can play the run from sideline to sideline and also has the speed and athleticism to match up in coverage. When a team is mining undrafted rookies for inside linebackers, it usually has to settle for a player who can do one or the other.

• John Houston (6-3, 220) was a three year starter at USC and a team captain, has 4.5 speed and finished his college career with 13 tackles for loss, five sacks, and an interceptions. He can look comfortable dropping into coverage. Mississippi State's Leo Lewis (6-2, 245) is more of an in-the-box banger, and he is at his best when asked to fill holes and attack running backs in the backfield.

• During this unique offseason, the Steelers looked to strengthen their depth along the defensive line while also taking a shot at replacing the interior pass rush that was provided by Javon Hargrave, who left for Philadelphia as an unrestricted free agent. In the seventh round of the draft, they selected Nebraska's CARLOS DAVIS, and shortly after making that pick they signed Mississippi's JOSIAH COATNEY and Kentucky's CALVIN TAYLOR.

• Coatney (6-4, 325) can play either inside or outside along the defensive line, and he totaled 6.5 sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss in college. Taylor (6-8, 309) finished his college career with 10.5 sacks, but 8.5 of those came in 2019.

• The Steelers are looking for competition when they go through the process of filling out their depth chart along the defensive line. Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Tyson Alualu, and Chris Wormley are favorites for four of the roster spots, and since the Steelers typically keep six on their initial 53-man roster, Daniel McCullers and Isaiah Buggs will have to hold off Coatney, Taylor, Walker, and Davis.

• After graduating from Milton High School, CORLISS WAITMAN accepted a football scholarship to South Alabama to honor his late father, Jose, a basketball star for the Jaguars. After five seasons there, which included a redshirt and a year lost to an ACL injury, Waitman decided on a year at Mississippi State as a graduate transfer in 2019. But the NCAA denied that sixth season of eligibility, and Waitman found himself in the tough spot of having missed the NFL Draft but without a place to work on his craft.

• Mississippi State, coached by Joe Morehead at the time, kept Waitman on scholarship, which allowed him to work out with an SEC program even though he was ineligible to play. Waitman had averaged 42.7 yards per punt during his South Alabama career, including a school-record 45.7 average in 2017. Waitman also continued to work with kicking guru Mike McCabe, and so when Steelers Special Teams Coordinator Danny Smith called to offer a contract as an undrafted free agent contract, Waitman didn't hesitate.

• "It felt great," Waitman told a reporter. "I already talked to (Smith) a couple of months before … There is always a little bit of doubt -- you never know what is going to happen during the draft, but it was a good feeling to get an opportunity because that's all I wanted."

• Versatile and smart are two qualities NFL teams look for in a prospect, especially someone trying to make it as an undrafted rookie, and CHRISTIAN MONTANO (6-4, 300) checks both of those boxes. Montano began his college career at Brown, the same Ivy League institution that includes John D. Rockefeller Jr., and John F. Kennedy Jr. among its alumni, and during his time there he was a team captain and played both center and offensive tackle. As a graduate transfer at Tulane, he started all 13 games at center for the Green Wave, and the Steelers see him as a backup potentially capable of playing all three interior offensive line positions. A spot on the 53-man roster in 2020 might be out of Montano's reach because of the veterans ahead of him on the depth chart, but last season the Steelers' top interior offensive lineman on the practice squad was J.C. Hassenauer. If Montano can beat out Hassenauer, he might end up with a spot on the practice squad.

• Whenever it comes time for the Steelers to assemble all of the players on their 90-man roster in the same place, Mike Hilton won't be the smallest guy on the field anymore. That distinction will belong to Miami's TREJAN BANDY, who had the distinction of being the shortest cornerback at the Combine after checking in at 5-8, 180. Like Hilton, Bandy is a slot cornerback, and in 2018 he earned a coverage grade of 89.4 from Pro Football Focus. The issue for Bandy will be whether he is able to stick with the bigger, more physical receivers he'll encounter in the NFL because he figures to be at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to combat catches.

• Size will not be an issue for Florida Atlantic's JAMES PIERRE (6-2, 185), but the reason he was undrafted likely was his 4.59 time in the 40-yard dash, which made him the fourth-slowest cornerback at the Scouting Combine. Here is how Pierre was evaluated by NFL Media's Lance Zierlein: "Another season at FAU might have helped his cause, but his size, toughness in run support, and potential to improve could make him a developmental Cover-2 cornerback with an early stay on the practice squad." Pierre was productive in 2019 for Florida Atlantic, with 44 tackles (4.5 for loss), three interceptions, and four passes defensed. Pierre is going to need work on his footwork and fundamentals, and his 4.59 speed isn't going to help him.

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