We are just day from the kickoff of the 2023 season, and lately social media has been littered with posts of alternative football fan still trying to decide which team to claim as their own in 2023. If you want an exciting offense, a ball-hawking defense, and a special teams units that featured one of the best return units in the league, look no further than the Philadelphia Stars. We are going to take a closer look at ten players to watch in 2023 for the Stars, as well as a few bonus picks that I believe could be big time contributors long term.
With Bart Andrus falling just short of another spring football championship ring he has locked and loaded this roster with players that were a part of the foundation of the Stars 2022 championship appearance, and many key free agents with previous NFL experience that should improve this roster in the places it lacked last season.
No writer can start any list of players to watch for the Stars without putting #1 Corey Coleman at the top of that list. Anytime a former first round pick ends up in an alternative football league, it peaks everyone’s curiousity. Coleman is easily one of the most intriguing players in the USFL heading into the 2023 season, his ability to take off the defense in college, led him to be a first round pick of the NFL in 2016. First of let’s face one reality about Coleman’s situation. He was drafted by the Cleveland Browns, under Hue Jackson.
Corey Coleman would live through the toughest stretch of football the NFL has seen in a very long time. Hue Jackson was hired in 2016, and took to building his offense. The long-time offensive coordinator wanted to be able to stretch the field, and had a plan to just that. He signed Terrelle Pryor a player who had announced via his agent that he would be making the move to wide receiver after he was released by the Bengals as a quarterback. He would follow that up by drafting Coleman in the 1st round, 15th overall, pairing Pryor, a match-up nightmare, and Andrew Hawkins a reliable slot reciever, with the young speedster that was Corey Coleman.
While on paper the Browns had a lot of talent, and the statistics showed it as well, the win-loss record was abysmal for the next two seasons under Hue Jackson. Jackson and company would notoriously win just 1 game over the 2016, and 2017 seasons. This had to be one of the most devestating situations any NFL team could face, and it was likely the worst situation Coleman could have walked into as a rookie. Coleman honestly was drafted right where he should have been in terms of overall draft position, his talent, athleticism, and production in college proved exactly that.
What was also put on display, that made Coleman such a surefire pick, was his ability to aid his team in the return game. He was so electric in that part of his game that he produced a career average of 26 yards per kick return, including a 97 yard touchdown return. With the Browns it all fell apart for Coleman, he would stick in Cleveland for just those two fateful seasons. On screen on display for everyone via Hard Knocks, Corey Coleman requested a trade out of Cleveland heading into his third season due to frustration with his lack of reps.
Whirlwind 2018 Season
Coleman would get traded to the Buffalo Bills, who released him just a month later, then he was signed by the Patriots as a project player, only to release him in favor of Josh Gordon, currently in the XFL. Coleman had spent just over 40 days with the Bills and Patriots combined, it wasn’t until October Coleman was signed to the Giants practice squad. After about a week to learn the playbook and make sure he was in game shape, he was signed to the active roster. During that season his impact on the Giants was not primarily on offense as it had been with the Browns. He was doing his damage in the return game.
Despite joining the team midseason, he would finish the year 9th in the league in with 598 yards and 6th with a 26 yard per return average per ProFootballReference.com. Coleman had shown at worst, he was a depth wide receiver, and return man in the NFL. The Giants had seen his value, and they intended for him to return but this is when things got worse for Coleman. After it looked like he was finally building some momentum in his career, he would tear his ACL in training camp and miss the 2019 season. The Giants brought him back again in 2020. He would be released via final cuts, and later spend some time on the practice squad but never get called up. After this situation, he would receive a 6 game suspension for performance enhancing drugs this caused some teams who may have been interested to shy away from signing the former Baylor Star. He would sit out the entire 2021 season signing with the Chiefs in 2022, where he overlapped with now Stars teammate Devin Gray, both men would end up released by the end of August, but Coleman would be added to the practice squad for a couple months midseason again logging no statistics.
Just five seasons removed from being selected 15th overall, he was out of the NFL. He hadn’t logged a statistic since the 2018 season, and teams were putting him on the back burner for other younger players. Coleman knowing he needed to jump start his NFL career, opted to join Gray with the Stars in the USFL. After sitting out the entire 2021 season, Coleman knew he couldn’t afford to waste anymore time, and this gave him an opportunity to showcase what he can do. He will line-up opposite Jordan Suell, the only wide receiver from the Stars that landed in the top 25 of the league in yards. This should in theory force defenses to give near equal attention to both receivers and get creative in coverages. Coleman who once held a career average of 17.4 yards per reception in college, and followed it by producing 12.9 yards per reception in the NFL.
Unreliable, or Product of his Surroundings?
The main thing Coleman knows he needs to prove, is that his catch rate in Cleveland was more indicative of the quarterbacks he played with than it was his hands. He caught just 42.7% of his 131 targets in 19 games with the Browns. His catch rate fell from 2017, to 2018 from 45.2% to 39.7%, during that stretch he played with five different starting quarterbacks; Cody Kessler, Robert Griffin III, Josh McCown, Deshone Kizer, and Kevin Hogan, on most NFL teams those quarterbacks aren’t starters. In 2023 he gets to play with one of the more efficient and accurate quarterbacks in the league. He is an unquestioned starter, who is not likely to be benched anytime soon, all of which he could not say anywhere he played on an active roster. I am excited to see what Coleman can do in the most stable team he has ever gotten to play in games with as a professional. I expect a career resurgence, and a very solid season. I also would not be shocked to see the Stars use him in the run game from time to time given how many carries he had in college, that was a nearly untapped side of his game in the NFL.
In week one’s victory over the Memphis Showboats, Case Cookus looked Coleman’s way often. He caught all 4 of his targets on the day producing 65 yards. This may help silence some of the critics about Coleman having an issue with drops, but he still needs to prove it over a longer stretch of time. This will be one storyline to track. Coleman also showed his value on special teams as well with 2 returns for 54 yards.
Adam Rodriguez who has always been an underdog, even when he was brought into the Stars he was not expected to be the starter, and didn’t open the season that way. By season’s end he was not only the starter, he had a 3 sack game under his belt against Houston, and he was second in the league behind only NFL signee Chris Odom (12.5) with 9 sacks. Now with a full offseason of being the guy in that defensive line rotation, and a full season as a starter I expect Rodriguez to contend for the lead in sacks in 2023, and double digits are not out of his reach should he stay healthy.
Rodriguez is also an interesting player to watch due to his versatility. It hasn’t happened yet, but he has a background as a fullback/h-back as well. After the 2022 USFL Season, Rodriguez worked out with the Seattle Seahawks who requested he workout as not only a defensive end, but as an h-back as well. This shows how unique he is as a player, and that he is already on NFL radars although he was not yet extended an offer likely, due to pulling a muscle in the workout and not being able to finish the drills they had asked for on offense.
My initial worry this offseason was that he would not have competent help on the other side after he lost Freedom Akinmoladun. That fear was quickly put to rest after they signed Darius Hodge, Carson Taylor, and Ali Fayad. All of these command attention from opposing offensive lines which means the double teams will have to be rotated at times in order to neutralize this pass rush. We may not have seen a sack in week 1 but we saw our line in Brady White’s face early and often and I expect to see more of the same as the season goes.
Chris Rowland is a guy I have talked about in the past being in line for more touches for the Stars. He not only proved me right, he exceeded my expectations as well. In week one he had 6 offensive touches, seeing time as a running back and a wide receiver. He collected 3 carries for 22 yards, and 3 catches for 31 yards and 1 touchdown. He also added 1 tackle, and 3 kick returns for 99 yards on special teams. This may have been his break out game, but anyone who watched the Stars last season knew Rowland held the talent to be the guy for us after the departure of Maurice Alexander.
Rowland has made some impressive catches throughout his USFL career, but it was his ability in the run game that dazzled me this weekend. With just 3 carries, he showed he has no fear in running up the gut from the tailback position, and he displayed impressive burst, and vision to hit the hole quick, and accelerate to the second level. He averaged over 7 yards per carry on the day. This was one facet of his game he never got a chance to display at the NFL level, and it’s now a trendy thing to watch wide outs get play as running backs in recent years with the emergence of players like Deebo Samuel, Tyreek Hill, Robert Woods, and many more who are seeing an average of 1-2 carries a game.
His versatility should peak the curiosity of many NFL teams who may not have realized this was a part of his game in college, and high school. When you combine his dual threat ability and positional versatility on offense, as well as his value in the kick return game, and other facets of special teams he is a must have for any NFL team trying to round out their roster. In theory, with most teams carrying 5-6 receivers, and only 3 running backs he essentially would allow a team to carry a guy at the backend of both of those positions while his added value of special teams would give them immediate value. See Kavontae Turpin’s 2022 NFL Season for reference.
I would be disowned by Stars fans if I didn’t include Case Cookus, a man who entered 2022 as a back-up to Bryan Scott, his calm cool demeanor was put on display when Scott suffered an injury and Cookus was called upon. He would help lead this team to a championship in his first USFL season, and show he is an efficient, intelligent quarterback, whose leadership abilities might be his best trait. Captain Cookus as he is often called, displays all the intangibles you want in a starting quarterback, as well as the patience, determination, and confidence to come off the bench if that is the role you see for him.
Admittedly I was surprised when Sean McVay a former alternative football coach himself before returning to the NFL, did not sign Cookus to a futures deal. However I would like to point out that this does not mean that he couldn’t return to the Rams if he continues to play like he did on Saturday. Attempting 29 passes, Case completed 20 of them, a 69% completion rate, racked up 212 yards with 3 touchdowns and no turnovers. He displayed a willingness to run, with 7 carries for 31 yards. His mobility, and his ability to evade pressure within the pocket are what sets him apart from your normal pocket passers. Case is every bit the point guard you want out their dishing the ball out to his playmakers to score the points, but he is also the type of player who can take the game into his own hands, and run when the situation calls for it, and sometimes he will even break off a huge gain.
In my opinion he belongs in the NFL on an active roster somewhere, and I believe that if he continues his amazing play in the USFL, by season’s end, he could have as many as 5-7 NFL teams calling him about coming into camp with their team. Especially if he leads this team to another championship berth in 2023.
Stribling or “Strib” led the USFL in interceptions in 2022 with 7, and that’s considering he didn’t play every game last season. In fact he ended up forcing a turnover in every game he played. Stribling has been fighting an uphill battle toward the NFL since 2017 when he went undrafted out of Michigan.
If not for alternative football, and the rule changes to NFL practice squads after 2020’s COVID Pandemic, Stribling might be out of football altogether or still playing in Canada. After using up two of his three years of practice squad eligibility heading into the 2019 season, the Alliance of American Football would give Stribling his first chance to play in a regular season professional game.
Stribling went on to play in all 8 games, starting 6 of them. He collected 19 tackles and 1 interception. Then the AAF was shut down by new owner Tom Dundon. Forcing the players to move on to other opportunities. Many made the leap to the XFL, but Stribling had a short detour to the CFL first signing with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and spending time on their practice roster. When the XFL 2020 launched, Stribling again leapt to a new league hedging his bets on himself. He again played in every game, this time only 5, all starts.
He again played well collecting 14 tackles, and 1 interception before he again was forced to head north when the XFL folded due to Covid. He signed with Hamilton once again, but the CFL season was cancelled so he chose his only option and jumped into The Spring League, this led him to team up with Bart Andrus, and his defensive coordinator Brad Miller for the first time. This would prove valuable later on.
When the CFL returned so did Strib right back to Hamilton who seemingly had an open offer to him more or less waiting for him to find a reason to return. They likely saw what the Stars coaches did as well. In 2021 he started 4 games in the CFL for Hamilton collecting 6 tackles and missing out on an interception for the first time as a starter. In 2022 the TSL rebranded into the USFL bringing with it Andrus and his staff. They knew the value of Stribling and wanted him on their roster. I don’t think anyone knew he would go on to have 7 interceptions but if you listen to his coaches they knew he was an elite defensive back with the instincts, and athleticism to be a premier player in the right scheme.
The thing holding Stribling back when it comes to the NFL is his foot speed. He isn’t the type of cornerback who will wow you with his 40-time, he simply produces when he plays. This is another example of the NFL system failing. Stribling could be on an NFL roster but he didn’t win gold at the underwear olympics in 2017, so now that will stick with him for his career, Nevermind that he has 15 interceptions, and 1 forced fumble in his last 48 games, or that 9 of those came in his last 24 games. The truth is fans of the USFL are the winners here with Stribling returning to the league after another stint in the NFL, and getting drafted in the XFL, one can only assume he had CFL offers on the table as well.
Ali Fayad, Defensive End
Being that I am a Philadelphia Eagles fan, Ali Fayad, was a name that I previously knew before signing with the Stars. He had spent some time with the Eagles after graduating from Western Michigan.
After looking into Fayad’s career his production was unbelievable at the college level. It is shocking to see that he is available and not in the NFL currently but the NFL’s loss is certainly the USFL‘s gain here.
While at WMU, Fayad was a constant threat to opposing quarterbacks and running backs. This appeared on his stat line in the form of 159 tackles, 53 for a loss, and 28.5 sacks. Now I doubt very highly that this is the name that’s gonna move the needle for many Philadelphia Eagles fans.
However, for those diehard fans, the ones more likely to watch a league like the USFL, these connections between the NFL team representing that city, and the USFL team representing that city helps build that slight bit of rapport with the fans that is necessary to get the mouths moving and talking about this league in host cities.
At 6’2 250 pounds, Fayad is just two years removed from college. After departing the NFL he signed with the Toronto Argonauts where he would play in 4 games registering 4 tackles on defense, 1 on special teams, and 1 sack. He collected a ring with Toronto then returned to the US in an effort to make another run at the NFL with film from three teams to work with. I expect Fayad to be a key contributor on this roster before getting a call up this offseason, maybe even back to the Eagles where he can use his platform to spread the word about the Stars.
Cody Brown, Safety
There have been countless terms for big hits in the NFL, from “laying the wood”, “knocking guys out”, “tattooed him on that one”. No matter the terminology you use Cody “Hitman” Brown is the guy on this defense that will make you go “ooooohh!!!” much like in 2022 when Brown laid a hit on a Maulers receiver that left him spitting out chunks of his teeth, Brown has become known for viral hits.
Brown is another alternative Football veteran, a guy whose career originally started after a chance with the Alliance of American Football. After the AAF folded, Brown was signed by the Jacksonville jaguars and given an opportunity to make an NFL team for the first time. However he would end up released, leading him back to alternative football once again this time with the XFL in 2020.
This time after just five games instead of eight with the AAF, the league shut down due to Covid 19. Cody who Scott said the idea of playing indoor football was left on the sideline hoping for his next opportunity. That opportunity would come in the form of the USFL in 2022. The Philadelphia Stars selected Cody, knowing what he had done in the AAF and XFL previously.
Cody would again bring that physical presence to the Stars secondary, pairing with the ball hawk Channing Stribling that we already spoke about to form one of the better secondaries in the league. After the 2022 USFL season, we surprisingly did not see a Cody Brown getting opportunity at the NFL level, but that did not stop other leagues from expressing their interest in Cody. He would ultimately be selected in the 2023 XFL draft but opt to remain with the stars in 2023 to build on the foundation he had from last season. If you’re a fan of big hits, it look no further than Hitman Brown.
Matt Colburn, Running Back
Matt Colburn another player that got signed by an NFL team but opted to return to the stars this off-season, Colburn was one of the Key contributors to a championship run in 2022. Colburn is another spring football veteran.
While his career began with the Los Angeles Rams of the NFL, he would not make the active roster instead ending up a free agent by the 2020 season. This allowed him to pursue the 2020 version of the XFL, where he would play with the New York Guardians. Of course as I’ve spoke about multiple times in this article already that XFL folded after just five games due to the pandemic. Many XFL players that were not signed by NFL rosters, turned around and found a way to continue their football career with The Spring League.
This kept Colburn in game shape, and gave him a chance to parlay the film into something bigger. He too would spend time with the Toronto Argonauts, but never end up elevated from the practice squad. He would ultimately return to his TSL roots and wind up selected by the Stars in the 2022 draft. Originally he was splitting carries with Darnell Holland before he ultimately took hold of the backfield and went on a run of games where he scored in each one.
He finished the season with his best year as a professional playing in 10 games, credited with just 4 starts he carried the ball 102 times for 457 yards, 8 tds, adding 18 receptions for 150 yards 1 touchdown, and 3 kick returns for 53 yards. He was later signed by the Jacksonville Jaguars, but let go before the season deciding to return to the USFL and the Stars where he had all but sewn up the starting job, even with former 5th round pick Dexter Williams signed.
Maybe it was due to re-signing with the USFL right away but I was surprised that he didn’t receive more XFL interest or consider the interest he did receive. Maybe the certainty of his status with the Stars made the most sense for him. Whatever the reason Stars fans should be thrilled we have Colburn back.
Larry Dalla-Betta, Tight End
With no word as to what is going on with Bug Howard, and watching as both Pro Wells, and Ryan Izzo were listed as injured in week one, LDB entered the game as the only healthy tight end.
By the end of the game he had not collected any targets, however before the season there were questions if he would even be active often given the depth of the position group. Bug Howard was expected to be one of thiiiijhe best right ends in the league again this year. His status changed to being placed on the reserve list just after camp started.
This left the Stars testing their depth behind Howard immediately. Pro Wells caught 1 pass for 10 yards. Wells may have been the top tight end on the day, but athletically speaking Larry Dalla-Betta is a guy who could be a crucial piece to this offense if he can successfully transition to tight end. Back in high school he was a dual threat quarterback who racked up 111 carries for 582 yards, and 4 touchdowns.
He may not be the fastest player in the world but he has some agility and explosiveness to his game that helped him get to this point. Now he needs to put it all together with the Stars. He could be this year’s Adam Rodriguez, a guy who starts slow as a backup, but catches fire quickly once he feels confident. A plus athlete that simply needs to figure out his new position at the professional level.
Stanford Samuels III, Defensive Back
Samuels came out of college following the 2019 season meaning he didn’t get a chance to showcase himself with a proper combine and pro day. Despite this fact he found himself on an NFL roster with the Green Bay Packers. Originally on the practice squad, he was called up in two games as a rookie collecting 3 tackles. He also graded out as an impressive 67.9 in coverage per PFF.com.
After the season was over he signed a futures deal hoping to remain with the Packers. He would stick through the entire offseason before being released in final cuts. It wasn’t until several months later that he would find his next home, an NFC North Division Rival, the Chicago Bears. The Bears brought Samuels in on the practice squad but ultimately he was let go before camp began.
He would sign with the Raiders next, hoping this was his chance to break through. This stint lasted just 2 months. Long enough to remove him from any chance to play in the USFL in 2022. Now with the Stars in 2023, Samuels looks to prove himself this year. Samuels attended Florida State, where he played under his father Stanford Samuels Jr.
This pairing proved crucial to the younger Stanford’s success in college as his father oversaw the cornerback position after a college and professional career in the CFL playing the position. Samuels III, entered college early, and left the school following his third season. So even though he bounced around the NFL for three seasons, he is just 24 years old, with some NFL rookies coming out of college older than he is.
In college he managed to find himself around the ball often. This resulted in 145 tackles, 5.5 for a loss, 1 sack, 8 interceptions, 16 tipped passes, and 1 forced fumble. His size: 6’1 190 lbs, lends itself to playing outside, and matching up with bigger receivers. He also can play cornerback or safety. The knock on him was the speed he displayed in college led to him getting burned at times. However the Stars have a similar player on the other side of the field in Channing Stribling who has proven speed isn’t everything in a cornerback. When or how he will crack the lineup might be the toughest part but his positional versatility doesn’t hurt.
Ten Players to Watch in 2023 for the Philadelphia Stars
This turned into a more difficult exorcise than I had anticipated at first. This Stars roster has so many players to pay attention to, that it’s hard to limit it to any number that isn’t the entire team. With these ten players, some are simply intriguing, others are the best of the best at their position outside the NFL.
With a good mixture of the unknown, and the known commodities on this team, I believe these ten players will keep any USFL can intrigued by the Stars, and wondering how far this team can go. Many power rankings had the Stars ranked 4th in overall talent behind the other 3 playoff teams last season.
Maybe it’s time the Stars reminded fans who was the other team in the Championship game in 2022. The New Jersey Generals, and New Orleans Breakers weren’t it. Both of those teams also suffered key losses. New Jersey no longer has Luis Perez, or Kavontae Turpin, New Orleans reshaped their QB room, and lost most of their best pass rushers. Meanwhile, the Stars, simply continued to load up and already stacked roster with most of the team returning following a very strong 2022 season. Now the critics are just giving the Stars bulletin board material to keep them motivated.