The Philadelphia Stars are coming off a very disappointing end to the 2023 season. After starting the season slow with a 1-3 record, the Stars began to look like a playoff team once again by winning three straight.
It was at this point almost as if by default the 4-3 Stars were atop the North division. After the north division slowly cannibalized itself with nearly every team splitting their inner division games, it was the Stars who stumbled to three straight losses and fell out of the playoffs.
A few themes rang true all season long win or loss. The Stars struggle in three main areas; stopping the run, protecting the quarterback, and running the ball. You could add rushing the passer to this list and I would only argue the health of the front four has dictated the amount of pressure produced each week.
With those four areas laid out before us, it stands to reason that the Stars biggest needs are: Defensive Line, Linebacker, Offensive Line, possibly Running Back, however I don’t know that the players in all these positions or their health are necessarily to blame.
Coaching Woes Continue
The Stars staff is extremely experienced, particularly when you talk about how long they’ve all worked together in various stops for multiple different leagues. However no matter if you’re talking offense, defense, or special teams there is room for improvement in every facet of this team but it starts at the top with the play callers. Coach Brad Miller came on my Podcast for an interview and one thing he said that stuck out to me was: “a well coached team should get better as the season goes along.”
This was alluding to the adjustments that coaches make throughout the year to compensate for weaknesses or accentuate strengths. Something tells me by Coach’s standards and the others among the staff they’ve got work to do on that front. It seemed the Stars were slow to react whether it was to injury, or poor play they simply seemed to make very small adjustments or transactions to try and quell issues.
At times you could compare it to a fisherman trying to stop a leaky boat using only his fingers. At some point you’re still going to sink. This is what we witnessed this season, the coaches caught trusting their process, scheme, and admittedly even their players too much at times.
To be clear I’m not suggesting any of these coaches leave, quite the contrary in fact. I want them all to return, and redeem themselves and this team after the 2023 season ended the way it did. If Stars fans thought they had a sour taste in their mouths after 2022, it’s sure to have long since been replaced by the end of the 2023 season.
No position saw more injuries for the Stars than the defensive line. Looking back they only had a couple players play in all ten games. They lost Chris Nelson, Cedrick Lattimore, Darius Hodge, Ali Fayad, Carson Taylor, Ralph Holley, and more during the season for at least one game.
This mad dash to find defensive linemen did however turn up a gem in defensive tackle LaBryan Ray. Ray produced 3 sacks, and 10 tackles after being added mid-season. He is one player I strongly expect to see NFL interest with the season over. Here’s to hoping we find him back in the USFL next season and back with the Stars.
At defensive end this is not an issue of talent. I believe it’s time to explore a new defensive front. I have brought this up several times before but I believe the defense especially as injuries piled up was better constructed to run a 3-4, than a 4-3. Virtually every defensive end on the roster looks like they would be right at home playing linebacker.
LaBryan Ray, and Ralph Holley are solid defensive end candidates, with guys like Cedrick Lattimore, and Tyler Clark there as depth outside our inside depending how the team sees them fitting. Jordan Scott and Chris Nelson can play the nose primarily.
The other upside is suddenly linebacker is no longer a need. With most everyone currently listed as a linebacker moving to inside linebacker there would be a very difficult battle for the top two spots there. Gabriel Sewell Jr, Joey Alfieri, Joel Dublanko, Ryan Greenhagen, Bj Bello and possibly more would all be fighting for the same 3-4 roster spots. Now I am a firm believer we do not see a scheme change and if that’s the case, they must add more size to the interior of their defensive line.
Run first teams built around road grading linemen will only continue to push around the relatively small defensive tackle group for Philly. One thing to watch for in 2024 is the potential for 2023 draft picks to be brought in by the USFL. Players like Truman Jones, Trey Botts, and Jose Ramirez. They could also look to attract XFL Rookie Draft Picks as well with many intriguing names selected but not yet signed.
Now that I’ve gotten my final 2023 plea for a move to a 3-4 defense out of the way let’s move on to how to address the offensive positions of need.
On the offensive line the Stars have tried to search high and low for talent at the position since the 2023 rookie draft when they selected five different offensive tackles. Looking back at this point they likely hoped one or more of these players would end up contributing in 2023. Unfortunately, for the Stars, three of the five were signed by NFL teams, and one is playing with the Calgary Stampeders. That leaves just Alfred Edwards unsigned currently
This led them to sign players like Antonio Garcia, Khalil Keith, Drew Himmelman, and rookie Chris Toth, mid-season plugging new players in every other week. It wasn’t until after Himmelman and Keith entered the lineup that the line stopped giving up as many sacks. Priority number one before 2024 is to do everything you can to get Drew Himmelman, Shamarious Gilmore, Khalil Keith, and Chris Toth to return. Those four guys could make up your starting four then have Cj Perez, and Sean Brown compete for the center spot.
Getting some players back from injury would only help this situation as well. Blake Camper in particular comes to mind. If I was a USFL coach I would be taking a long hard look at those XFL Rookie Draft Picks and submitting just in case offers. In the event these players don’t make the week one roster, they can jump to the USFL and have a soft landing spot, or just forego the XFL entirely if the USFL presents the opportunity to start. I’m looking at you Lindsey Scott Jr…
As far as rookies outside the pool selected in the USFL or XFL draft classes, there is sure to be very stiff competition for players cut from NFL squads every-time a new name hits the market. So why not get creative? We’ve already talked about how international players aren’t necessarily an Avenue the USFL has opted to take yet, so with that fact in mind what about looking even closer at the indoor football leagues?
Whether it’s the Indoor Football League, the Champions Indoor Football League, or the National Arena League there is talent to be found, with several of these guys having gotten CFL, USFL, or XFL looks before, and could have just been victims of the number game. The tweet below is just a small example of the offensive line shuffling that occurred all season long.
Running back looking forward is very interesting to me. Does Matt Colburn return for season three? Does Dexter Williams return or does he pursue options elsewhere due to a smaller than expected role? What about Paul Terry, and Jamyest Williams? Both of these guys were signed late in the season because of depth concerns.
Terry at one point was released in favor of Darnell Holland. Holland missed 9 of 10 games in 2023. The only game he appeared in he had 5 carries for 14 yards. He was released the following week opening the door for a Paul Terry return. Terry knows the offense well, can play both running back or wide receiver, and offers value as an option in the return game. Terry saw just one carry that resulted in zero yards this season but managed 50 touches for 307 yards, and 2 touchdowns in 2022 for the Stars. I expect Terry to be given another chance to make this roster for the 2024 season but I also would be surprised if there wasn’t at least one more back added before training camp next year.
Jamyest Williams was signed late in the year, but he brings an intriguing skill set the Stars like for their offense. The 24 year old runner saw 7 touches in his only appearance of the season collecting 22 yards rushing and 8 yards receiving. At 5’9 185 pounds he offers the ability to play in nearly every facet of special teams.
As a former college defensive back with 93 career tackles, coverage units, field goal and punt block should all come natural. He had experience returning kicks and punts in college, which could be something the Stars revisit after watching key offensive contributors take the bulk of the touches in those areas in 2023.
Williams is not the most explosive runner, and he isn’t likely to be the fastest man on paper for any roster, what he can offer, is room to continue developing over time. Given his mid-college move to running back he’s only played the position for about 2 full seasons now. Despite his size, his strengths come primarily from his ability to run with great power and break arm tackles often. He has excellent vision, and runs with a defensive mindset.
This allows him to predetermine what a defender will do in a split second and bait them into a missed tackle, he also isn’t afraid of contact and finishes his runs with power, and a little bit of a nasty streak. The big knocks on him are blocking related. Some of that is to be expected given his size at 185 pounds, but I would venture a guess that some of it is the fact that he’s still adapting and learning to play the offensive side of the ball. In theory he and Paul Terry are direct competition for each other in 2024.
There are a few interesting running backs who are playing at the IFL level that could be worth a look for Philadelphia. Names like Tim Whitfield, Jimmie Robinson, Antonio Wimbush, Justin Rankin, Shane Simpson, Martez Carter or former FCF Back Daryl Virgies all come to mind as options for the Stars. They could also bring back Holland, or Scarlett who spent time with the Stars this past offseason.
Wide Receiver Could Get Interesting
Wide receiver as it stands currently is not a need for the Stars. That fact could change fairly quickly depending on who gets NFL interest, and if any players became disenfranchised with the idea of playing alternative football after a rough year for the Stars.
If everyone returns this group if healthy could be one of the best in the league led by Corey Coleman, Jordan Suell, Chris Rowland, Devin Gray and Diondre Overton in 2024. The Stars need to consider that one or more of these players may not return next season. Luckily the roster has players waiting for larger roles on offense already in Samuel Akem, Keric Wheatfall, and Terry Wright. An interesting name to watch will be Cyril Grayson who could become a star for the USFL long term if he returns in 2024, he strikes me as a player the CFL would love to poach.
The biggest question mark might be the NFL interest seen by Corey Coleman after leading the league in targets, receptions, and yards. He also got a chance to showcase his special teams acumen by returning punts and kicks. He had just 1 career punt return in the NFL, but came away with 11 in the USFL averaging just under 9 yards per return a very solid number, he was able to reaffirm his ability to return kicks as well. If he doesn’t get an NFL opportunity after a season in which he collected over 880 all purpose yards in just ten games does he stay in the USFL or opt to retire from football?
The Stars are in a position where their starter is very likely to we NFL interest for the 2023 season. Even amidst a rough year Cookus completed just under 63% of his passes, totaled the second most passing yards, and touchdowns in the league. However he also had the second most interceptions in the league (9) while being sacked the second most times in the league (29). Cookus worked out with the Cowboys, and Rams last season ultimately signing with the Rams and lasting with them from late November to when his practice squad contract expired.
I could see L.A bringing Cookus back this season especially if injuries occur. They selected Stetson Bennett, signed Brett Rypien, and Dresser Winn. Stafford returns as the starter, but Wolford is now in Tampa so they don’t have a clear number 2 yet, and I’m not sure the Rams are prepared to start a rookie, or Brett Rypien. Cookus on the other hand has started 19 USFL games, and thrown 348 passes in professional games. This would at least somewhat prepare him to step in if Stafford was injured.
The good news is that the Stars have one of the deepest quarterback rooms in the league. Vad Lee was a starter last season with the Maulers, and now alternated all season with Kevin Thomson a former CFL quarterback who looks like he could be a quality player at this level. My assumption would be these two would compete along with Kj Costello, and possibly another new face for the starting role if Cookus was gone.
A lot could change for the Stars from now until the 2024 season including various members of this roster getting NFL deals or simply deciding that spring football is no longer for them. Then again after an off-season spent preaching continuity, and a season in which our biggest enemy was complacency, perhaps change is exactly what this team needs heading into season three.
One thing is for sure the biggest off-season priority for the Stars has nothing to do with on field play. It’s finding a home in Philadelphia for 2024, and showing Eagles fans the Birds aren’t the only team in town. It’s going to take a lot more than 4-6 to do that.
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