The USFL season has now ended and we have begun to see players sign NFL contracts. This prompted a look at the Stars roster after a 4-6 campaign to look at who deserves a chance at the next level despite a rough season as a team.
In a season that watched the offensive line hamper an otherwise talented team it seemed like this was a logical position group to start with. With the Philadelphia Stars struggles in pass protection and the lack of production from the run game, the NFL options are few in this group, but that isn’t to say none of these guys deserve the opportunity to play at the NFL level.
Drew Himmelman, Left Tackle
The first name that comes to mind here is Drew Himmelman the left tackle added midseason after Antonio Garcia’s health simply couldn’t hold up. Himmelman was with the Washington Commanders just before signing with the Stars, so it’s not a stretch to say he will get another shot at the NFL level. A steadying force for the Stars, his health might be the biggest question as he missed time late in the year.
Playing in four games for the Stars, Himmelman was arguably one of the best linemen in the league for this stretch. A four year starter in college at Illinois State he started 38 games in 39 appearances. At this point Himmelman would be headed into his third NFL season in 2023 assuming he gets another chance. In 2021 playing 22 snaps with Denver he graded out over 80% in the passing game but struggled in the run game grading just under 49%. Called up to play in two regular season games he never played a snap.
Coming out of college one of Himmelman’s biggest knocks was his lack of functional play strength due to a conversion from tight end early in his college career. Standing 6’9 some knocks on him have been his lack of knee bend, and his high center of gravity which has at times caused issues with leverage. While Himmelman didn’t make the PFF.com list for highest grades linemen that was likely due to his lack of playing time.
Shamarious Gilmore, Left Guard
Gilmore was one of two starting offensive linemen for the Stars that showed up on the PFF.com top ten list for nearly every major category. He finished the season 7th with pressure allowed on just 2.4% of snaps, 9th in knockdown percentage with just .7%, and he was ranked second in positively graded run blocking snaps with 15.4% behind only Kirk Kelley of the New Orleans Breakers. Gilmore saw an 89 grade overall in week one the second highest on the entire team.
Gilmore’s college career looks very similar to his USFL career. Redshirting in 2016, he would follow this up by being named to the All-Sun Belt Conference Team in five straight seasons. The first two as an Honorable Mention, and the Last Three as First Team. He is one of the first players ever to be named to give straight All-Star teams in this conference.
He would also set school records for 60 games played, with 59 starts, and 4 bowl games. He started 51 consecutive games displaying his durability as well. As if all of these accolades weren’t enough he helped his school to four of the greatest rushing performances in the history of the program from 2018-2021. With an AVERAGE of 223 rushing yards per game for four years, an absolutely astounding number. If you’re also looking for a leader Gilmore served as a captain his final two seasons as well. This man truly is the total package of production, and size at 6’3 295 pounds.
The one big question coming out of college was level of competition. The USFL has helped him quell that concern after starting all ten games. Gilmore now has 69 starts under his belt since entering college. On top of that he played 32 snaps for the Seahawks last preseason and graded out at a solid 65.3 overall peaking at a 71.1 grade in pass protection. Gilmore is an NFL lineman just waiting on his next call. At just 25 years old teams should be jumping all over the chance to sign a high upside low risk player.
Cj Perez, Center
Perez was the unsung hero of the Stars offensive from week one on. In week one he graded 80.6, third on the team just behind his running mate Gilmore. A Temple University graduate after six seasons of college football due to COVID 19, Perez was a rookie in 2022 with the USFL.
This rookie quickly became one of the most consistent linemen in the league. At 6’1 293 pounds he is far from the largest offensive lineman you’ll find but he is possibly one of the quickest off the ball. In 2019 Chris Lindstrom (6’4 307 lbs) Drafted 14th overall ran the fastest 10 yard split in the combine with a 1.69, Lindstrom has since been named to the Pro-Bowl, and All-Pro teams in the NFL. In college he was named All-ACC in 2017, and 2018. Perez’s 10 yard split: 1.66.
While his overall 40 was a 5.35 he tweaked his hamstring on the attempt and wasn’t able to run again. He also put up more reps in the bench press, (26 to 25) and had a better vertical leap (32 1/2 to 30 1/2). Lindstrom has the better broad jump at 9 feet 9 inches, versus the 9 foot flat by Perez. One more area Perez fell short: arm length with 31 1/2 compared to 34 1/8. Regardless this gives an idea of the athlete Perez is. To give an idea of production we will look at his college and pro career.
After playing tight end in high school, Perez made the move to offensive line at the JUCO level. Originally Perez played two seasons at Shawnee Community College where he was named First-Team All American and team captain as a sophomore. Moving on to Northern Illinois University, he would start another 20 games there before again transferring.
This time he landed at Temple University. In 2020 he was the only lineman that started every game for the school. He had at one point 17 straight games as a starting center for Temple. As a graduate student in 2021 Perez was given All ACC Recognition. Perez is also a legacy player, his father played several years in the NFL, and CFL. Perez was just one of two Stars linemen to start all 10 games.
Most importantly he was one of the highest graded players in the league in the same three categories mentioned above for Gilmore. He allowed pressure on just 1.7% of snaps, second best in the league, was 7th in knockdown percentage with .5%, 7th in positive graded run blocks with 13.2%. An impressive run for a center who had some interest from Philadelphia, Kansas City, and Chicago but never anything concrete. It’s time the 28 year old gets another chance, which unfortunately could be his last opportunity in the NFL with his age.
Case Cookus, Quarterback
Case Cookus finished the season second in passing yards, and touchdowns in the 2023 USFL season. Cookus was signed by the Rams last season and spent over a month on their practice squad. Currently that same team only holds a group of fairly uninspiring backups behind Matthew Stafford. Future alternative football quarterback Brett Rypien is arguably the QB2 currently with Stetson Bennett QB3, and un-drafted rookie Dresser Winn. Cookus could come in and compete with Winn as the practice squad quarterback once again.
With the new quarterback rules in the NFL I believe that we will see more teams carry four quarterbacks with one as the development prospect on the practice squad. In this instance, the Rams would be approaching it slightly different with Bennett as the developmental prospect, and Cookus the more experienced option on the roster. Cookus’s time in the USFL has been incredibly valuable for teams looking to see what he will do when the bullets fly.
Case Cookus is a warrior, a team leader, and extremely durable. He took a beating in 2023, yet took some of the blame, and never piped up publicly about his line. His performance was inspiring to say the least, and should be enough to earn him another look, even if it isn’t in L.A. with Sean McVay. Cookus got some love from the analytics crowd when PFF ranked him 5th in big time throws at 3.8%, third lowest in turnover worthy plays at 2.3%, with an adjusted completion rate of 75% behind only the USFL Championship Game Starters.
Cookus faced the second most sacks in the league yet still managed the 4th highest pressured passing grade at 37.8. He ranked third with a clean pocket grade at 85.3. He was ranked fifth in deep passing grade at 73.4. Some other teams that could see him as an option: Chargers, Lions, Washington, Giants, or the Raiders make some sense to bring him in.
After two seasons in the USFL, ironically Cookus has 17 regular season starts collecting 3,629 yards attempting 556 passes completing 348 passes or 62.5%. He has thrown 27 touchdowns to 14 interceptions, adding 74 carries for 494 yards and 1 more touchdown. He’s displayed mobility, escapability in the pocket, leadership, and durability, all traits that are necessary to an NFL quarterback. Only time will tell if he gets another NFL contract.
Corey Coleman, Wide Receiver
Make no mistake, Corey Coleman understands where his career stands at this point. He wouldn’t have signed with the USFL if he didn’t understand he is quickly running out of time to find a home in the NFL. There is no shortage of new wide receivers entering the draft each season, and Coleman is currently 29 years old. Coleman likely looked at the USFL as an opportunity to reignite his NFL career, which is a large reason we saw him handling kick and punt returns at times while also leading the league in receptions and yards.
The former Biletnikoff Award winner nearly matched his NFL production spread across several seasons in just ten games with the USFL. Playing in 27 games starting 19, Coleman had 61 receptions for 789 yards, and 5 touchdowns. In just 10 USFL games Coleman managed 51 receptions, 668 yards and 4 touchdowns. He returned six kicks for 125 yards, and 11 punts and 93 yards and added 1 carry for 3 yards. He finished the season with 889 total yards on the year.
Corey Coleman managed to see his name near the top of many of PFF.com’s measures. He was fifth in yards per route run with 1.76, he was third in receiver rating with 110, and tied for 6th in contested catch rate, he also forced 10 missed tackles good for 4th in the league. (Speaking of future NFL Players Justin Hall had 22 leading the league)
The big question about Coleman has been attitude and his catch rate. Paired with Case Cookus, he managed to catch 65.3% of his passes, improving nearly 20% over his career average in the NFL. Granted this is not an apples to apples comparison it’s certainly encouraging that he was able to find such a drastic improvement. Showing that he is also willing to return punts and kicks was another factor that could get him back on an NFL roster. The question is what team needs a 29 year old wideout who has just under 200 career targets if they’re not playing every facet of special teams? Would Coleman be willing to run down on and kicks and punts to make tackles, on top of a potential role as a return man? This could be what it takes for him to carve out an NFL future. However one thing is for sure, the Stars would likely welcome him back with open arms.
Samuel Akem, Wide Receiver/Special Teams
I am probably biased when listing Akem, however one constant has shown itself between the USFL, and XFL players who have gotten camp invites, or NFL contracts. Playing special teams is important. Akem played on nearly every unit whether it was as a blocker on kick return, or an ace on kickoff coverage. He can do it, and has NFL size to back his special teams play at 6’3 205 pounds.
He will turn 26 years old as the season kicks off but Akem was a rookie in 2023 with the USFL after going un-drafted in the 2022 cycle. While Akem didn’t do much damage on offense due to the Stars’ depth at the position, his production in college should speak for itself.
At the University of Montana he put up impressive numbers, especially when his offense neared the end zone. His 6’3 frame and 31 inch vertical certainly didn’t hurt, but his 81 1/4 wingspan and enormous catch radius is what makes him so dangerous near the goal line. Many will point to a less than stellar 40-yard dash time of 4.7 as an indicator that he lacks top end speed, however, I would point out, Akem ran this drill at 220 pounds.
Having dropped 15 pounds his perceived lack of foot speed then is less of an issue now, and will only get better if he gets in an NFL training program designed to enhance his abilities. NFL.com lists a 1.53-1.67 10 yard split as the expected average and Akem managed a 1.62 at the time, indicating he has no issue with his first step. He also is very strong having put up 14 reps which is a big reason he was found in the game so often in the red zone, he is a willing blocker with the functional strength to convert to tight end long term if an NFL team so desired as well. I would love to see him get an opportunity but I believe he might need to get more of a role on offense before the NFL teams take notice and truly start seeing his prowess in these other key areas of making an NFL roster or practice squad.
Chris Rowland/Terry Wright Wide Receiver/Kick Returner
I expect one of these two players to get an opportunity in a minicamp this offseason. Teams are always looking for electric kick returners and both of these men are just that. Not only do they add value on kick return unit, but they have the ability to affect the office in multiple different manners.
Chris Rowland may have suffered an early injury, however he is only 26 years old, and now 2 months removed from surgery. Prior to his injury, he looked like he was on his way to an MVP-level campaign similar to KaVontae Turpin‘s performance in 2022. In just 3 games Rowland put up 425 total yards.
Rowland has NFL ties given his two-year stint with Atlanta and spending time with Tennessee in 2021. Despite heading into what would be his 4th NFL season, and 6th season total counting 2 USFL seasons, Rowland is still very young which should keep his NFL window open at least into 2024 if a team doesn’t come calling. Although he hasn’t done it as a professional Rowland can return punts as well.
Wright was the designated next man up for the Stars when Rowland went down. Able to do many things that Rowland does, Wright was just waiting his turn when his time came. When it did, he stepped up in a big way and often times put his body on the line to make a play.
Wright bounced around in the NFL from 2019 to 2021 on several practice squads. Making connections with Pittsburgh, Seattle and Miami. After that he went to the CFL signing with Ottawa where he spent two seasons before entering the 2023 XFL Draft. He would end up selected by the San Antonio Brahmas? The same Brahmas team that selected Cody Brown. Like Brown, Wright iotes to instead sign a contract with the USFL rather than pursue the XFL.
The Stars are happy he did, by season’s end Wright led the team in all-purpose yards from any non-quarterback and fell just shy of 1,000 yards on the season in just 7 games. He caught 13 passes for 142 yards and 2 touchdowns, 24 kick returns for 760 yards, and 1 punt return for 14 yards. While the USFL’s kickoff has inflated numbers, Wright averaged 31.6 yards per kick return, and nearly 11 yards per reception while displaying some next level burst, and amazing body control all traits of an NFL WR/KR. He is also just 26 currently.
LaBryan Ray, Defensive Tackle
Ray is an interesting case of a player who was on an NFL practice squad for his entire rookie season, only to be let go a little over a month after signing a futures deal. This left him a free agent for 3 months until the Stars came calling.
Ray is scheme versatile able to play defensive tackle in a 4-3, or defensive end in a 3-4 which increases his value to NFL teams given that he could quite literally play for all 32 teams in one position or another. His pro-day wasn’t perfect, but a 4.88 unofficial 40-yard dash certainly showed he was more nimble than most men his size. Standing 6’4 290 pounds he played primarily defensive tackle for the Stars.
One big knock on him no matter the outlet you look to, is that he lacked creativity in his pass rush coming out of college. Having played at Alabama it’s a slightly surprising issue, but one that can be corrected with coaching. One other big issue in his career? An extensive injury history, having broken a foot, an ankle twice, and suffered an elbow injury that required surgery and forced him to miss the NFL Combine.
Timing is everything, and the timing of his final injury could have been the final nail in his 2022 draft stock. Ray is just 25 years old and heading into what would be his second NFL season. He showed with the Stars he isn’t just a one trick pony focused on stopping the run by logging 3 sacks. He played in 7 games, with 5 starts showing NFL teams he can stay healthy as well. He also managed one of the lowest missed tackle rates in the league.
This should be enough to get another look for training camp, but he will have to impress to stick long term. He is still just scratching the surface of his potential. If an NFL team doesn’t sign him the Stars likely would welcome him back in a heartbeat.
Adam Rodriguez, Edge Rusher
Adam Rodriguez currently leads the modern day USFL with 15 sacks in two seasons. He will be just 26 years old heading into the 2023 NFL season with one year in The Spring League, and two seasons in the USFL, Rodriguez has shown he can compete at a high level. This was one question he needed to answer by playing in the USFL, but it wasn’t the only one.
At 6’2 245 pounds playing defensive end, Rodriguez is traditionally looked at as a pass rusher first, but don’t let his size fool you. He’s no stranger to stopping the run either. PFF.com certainly noticed his impact on the Stars as he graded out as one of the ten most effective pass rushers. Seeing him win on 14.5% of his pass rush snaps, 9th in the league, while producing pressure on 15.4% of his snaps 6th best in the USFL.
However he was also ranked fairly high in his run defense as well. He would finish sixth with 19.4% of his run snaps being positively graded. After a 9 sack season in 2022 he was brought in by Seattle who wanted him to work out at defensive end, and H-back. He tweaked a hamstring running drills on defense which prevented him from working out on offense, but this is a guy who was listed as a defensive end/fullback in the USFL Draft. His value is in his versatility given that his size, and abilities allow him to add depth to no less than four positions, while also playing every special teams unit.
Rodriguez is also a team first, high-motor guy who would do whatever his coaching staff asks. Weber State isn’t a big name school but Rodriguez produced in college at a very high level. Producing 41 tackles for a loss, and 22 sacks. He also managed to score three times showing an uncanny nose for the end zone when he gets the ball in his hands.
Channing Stribling, Cornerback
Channing Stribling is arguably the best cornerback in the USFL for two years straight. He brings with him the size, and strength to excel in press man coverage, but the necessary instincts to play well in zone as well. The knock on Stribling is an always will be his foot speed, he’s never been a guy who will put up a blazing fast 40 yard dash, but yet he’s always a guy will find production on the ball comes to his side of the field.
One thing we have not seen any NFL team attempt as of yet is a move to free safety. We often watch older cornerbacks who have lost a step move to free safety to prolong their career in the NFL why not try it with a player who obviously has the necessary intangibles to play in the NFL, but may not have the athletic ability that’s required to start as a cornerback at the next level.
At 6’2 190 pounds Stribling has the necessary size to move to safety if a team gives him that task. He reminds me a lot of Malcolm Jenkins a former first round draft pick whose career nearly fizzled out until the Saints moved him to free safety and utilized him in many roles including as a slot defender when teams went three wide allowing the defenses he played in to remain in base packages more often. This only increased his value to teams and it could do the exact same thing for Stribling who could find more snaps as a third/fourth safety, and depth corner than he could as strictly at cornerback.
Regardless Stribling was signed by Washington last offseason to compete, and could potentially get the call again. After how vocal Stribling was about negative aspects of the USFL this season the league may hope an NFL team doesn’t call because Stribling could have his pick of alternative football leagues having played in the AAF, XFL 2.0, CFL, USFL, and seeing his name selected by the XFL 3.0 as well. If he were signed by an NFL team and made a USFL free agent it wouldn’t shock me at all to see him opt to go back to the XFL, or CFL rather than return to the USFL for season 3.0.
Cody Brown, Safety
Cody Brown is the unsung hero of this Stars defense. A man who’s numbers may not be flashy, but his hits will have offensive players seeing stars, all puns intended. Brown is best known as a strong safety who makes his living in the box as almost an extra linebacker at times.
Once signed by the Jacksonville Jaguars after a stint in the AAF, the majority of his career has been spent in American alternative football leagues. After graduating in 2017 it was tough sledding for the former JUCO product. His first professional game didn’t come until the AAF’s launch two years later.
Following the collapse of the AAF, Brown did what many players did and jumped to the XFL 2.0, but this ended in more heart break for Brown who watched another league fold this time after just 5 games. To this point Brown had played 13 games, collecting 68 tackles, 1 sack, and 3 interceptions. Showing he was more than just a box safety.
Despite this performance and his short stint with the Jaguars in between, he wouldn’t see another NFL offer even with a more productive season with the XFL playing 3 less games. This led Brown to wait it out again for two years until the USFL launched in 2022. He would see his name drafted by the USFL’s Philadelphia Stars. In his first USFL season he was used more in the box than anything, and collected 51 tackles. Helping lead his team to a championship game and going viral for providing free wisdom tooth removal in game along the way.
Prior to the 2023 season Cody Brown made his intentions to test the XFL waters once again known. this led to him injuring his name in the XFL draft and watching as he was selected by the San Antonio Brahmas in the supplemental Draft class. After the talk of potentially joining the XFL once again Brown decided to actually spurn the XFL and return to the USFL with the stars for season two. he would again put up similar statistics with 52 tackles in just 10 games. A closer look at his numbers reveals a much clearer picture of his value at the next level.
Brown allowed the third lowest passed rating of any USFL safety, tied for first with just .24 yards allowed per coverage snap, was tied for the highest forest in completion rate at 25% in the league. while also ranking tied for second in highest grade it run defenders at the safety position at 7.4%. Brown may not have the interception numbers he once had with AAF, and XFL but it appears he has seen no drop off in his coverage ability. At 29 years old is certainly facing an uphill battle to land back in the NFL at this point in his career. However he has done everything in his power to put the necessary film out there for NFL teams. At this point it’s just finding the right fit. I for one can’t help but feel that if Cody Brown was may be an inch or two taller than 5 to 15 pounds heavier we might see him in the NFL already.
Joey Alfieri, Linebacker
If you’re looking for high praise from PFF, look no further then Joey Alfieri. Alfieri found himself ranked in the top 10 in just about every measure for a linebacker in the USFL possible. Weather coverage, or run defense, he showed there was a reason he was once signed by the 49ers, Giants and Eagles.
I’ve said it multiple times when discussing Alfieri, if you value intelligence, processing speed, and a higher understanding of the game this is your guy. A Stanford Graduate Alfieri was productive for the prestigious university. As a four year contributor in five seasons Alfieri managed 165 tackles, 26.5 for a loss, 14 sacks, 2 interceptions, 6 pbu’s, 2 forced fumbles, 2 recoveries, and 1 touchdown.
In just one season for the USFL, he had 63 tackles for the Stars or the 9th most in the league while playing in all ten games and starting nine. At times Alfieri has been listed as an edge rusher and given his production in college this isn’t a surprise. This also means he is another player that can contribute in several ways for an NFL team, including as a blocker having played fullback and running back in high school.
On PFF’s list of top 10 performances by a linebacker in 2023 in the USFL, Alfieri appeared on nearly every list. He collected 16 run stops fifth best in the league. He was third for seventh missing just 10% of his attempted tackles tied with teammate Gabriel Sewell.(more on him later) When tasked with covering a receiver, running back or tight end he managed to allow the third lowest passer rating in the league from the linebacker position with 69.8, while allowing just .48 yards per route covered a league low. Alfieri belongs in the NFL, and he put everything he needed to on tape in 2023 but the question with him is, will his age (27) hamper him?
Gabriel Sewell, Linebacker
Gabriel Soule is a linebacker that was highly productive in college, but managed to slip through the cracks of the NFL evaluation system. This was in part due to coming out of college in 2020, and in part due to his height. At 5’11 245 pounds he isn’t the ideal size for an NFL linebacker but he’s built like a Zach Thomas clone and production has never been a problem.
Given no chance to attend the combine or participate in a pro day, teams judged a book by its cover and left Sewell sitting on the shelf. A four year starter for Nevada University playing in 49 games, racking up 283 tackles, 21.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, 5 pass deflections, 3 forced fumbles, and 4 recoveries. He has continued this success in the USFL, as one of the most productive linebackers for the Stars two seasons straight.
In 2022 Sewell managed 47 tackles second most from the linebacker position, also logging .5 a sack causing a 4.5 yard loss. In 2023 Sewell seemed to be all over the field and logged 60 tackles. His play style is very throwback to the old days when linebackers were expected to read and react to the ball carrier running sideline to sideline to make tackles. As mentioned before he also is a very sound tackler and rarely misses.
Sewell is currently 26 years old and doesn’t turn 27 until December. He has experience playing special teams on coverage units, and field goal block as well. This will take a team willing to take a chance but something that could work in Sewell’s favor is he has not accrued any NFL seasons yet which means he would be slightly cheaper than some other more veteran options that may actually have less in game experience at the professional level.
Luis Aguilar, Kicker/Punter
Luis Aguilar joined the Stars midseason last year as they opted to change kickers midseason due to some struggles early on in the season. He came in and immediately solidified the kicing game despite the fact that he is not the greatest punter in the world. The good news for Aguilar, is it the NFL most likely all look at him primarily as a kicker and not a punter.
In terms of USFL kickers you could argue there was no one better than Aguilar. He managed to be nearly automatic under 50 yards and on extra points, while also handling kick offs and punting. In one game during the 2023 season he converted 8 field goals in a single game, punted 3 times and kicked off 9 times an astounding 20 kicks in a single game will wear out any kicker, and the Stars realized they were selling themselves short by asking him to handle all three duties to carry extra depth at wide receiver.
They opted to bring in a punter and kick off specialist which only aided Aguilar’s case moving forward as he finished the season first in the league in kicking points with 94. Collectively through two seasons Aguilar managed 33 of 39 on field goals and 38 of 39 on extra point attempts. He added 42 punts for 1,606 yards and I’m average of 38.2 yards per punt with 2 touchbacks while also handling kickoffs.
I have to wonder if Aguilar’s drop in accuracy past 45 yards wasn’t more due to fatigue from pulling triple duty than it was due to his inaccuracy from that range. In my eyes it’s no coincidence Aguilar missed just one kick, (with another on a fumbled snap) after the Stars brought in Lirim Hajrullahu, and 3 before hand. To put this in perspective Aguilar didn’t miss a single kick 39 yards or under, went 10 of 13 from 40-49 yards, and 4 of 7 from 50 and beyond. His USFL career long is 56 yards coming this season so distance isn’t an issue.
During his time at Northern Arizona University Aguilar had his strugglesin year two and five but his third and fourth years were more of what we saw in the USFL as he went 31 of 35 on field goals and 60 of 60 on extra points. His ability to handle kickoffs and punts in a pinch should be considered a bonus given his professional career conversion rate of 84% on field goals, and 97% on extra points.
Obviously with minimal positions available currently, not every one of these guys will get the call from the NFL. I can’t say who will and who won’t at this time, but I can tell you who deserves the opportunity at the next level. On paper, myself, and many others were talking about how this team was the most talented in the team overall, nothing has changed since then, except injuries and untimely mistakes that ended what was expected to be a promising season.