While they are separate entities, the original and current USFL leagues have one major thing in common, and that is the amount of players that made the leap from their league to the NFL. While Reggie White, Steve Young and other future stars made the move from the USFL to the NFL in the mid 1980s, over 50 players who took part in the USFL’s recently-concluded 2022 season are currently on NFL rosters.
The quick influx of USFL talent into the NFL was one of the primary goals for the current league, according to former NFL star and current USFL executive vice president of football operations Daryl Johnston.
“I credit everything to our players and our coaches,” Johnston told CBS Sports this week. “It has exceeded my expectations. … I still think there are a couple of guys who I’m surprised have not been invited to a camp yet, but we’ll wait and see what happens here down the stretch.”
One of those players is Houston Gamblers running back Mark Thompson, who was among the USFL’s leaders this past season in rushing yards, touchdown runs and all-purpose yards. While he acknowledged that the NFL has strayed away from the classic power back, Johnston feels that Thompson’s skillset would fit the scheme of several NFL teams.
“I think Mark in Tennessee would be a great fit,” Johnston said. “I think he’s a Derrick Henry-style guy. … When you’re 6-foot-3 and 235 and can run away from people, that’s something unique.”
While he hasn’t received his opportunity yet, Johnston feels that USFL players like Thompson will have opportunities to join an NFL team in the coming weeks, particularly if teams continue to suffer injuries at specific positions.
“There’s opportunities for our guys who are in football shape and ready to go to jump into an NFL camp,” Johnston said. “Their experience that they’re going to have [in the NFL] is the reason we did this. I couldn’t be happier for our guys who have had that opportunity to spend that time in training camp.”
Along with the players and coaches, Johnston attributes the USFL’s schedule as one of the main reasons for the league’s success in helping get players onto NFL rosters. The league played a 10-week regular season that was capped off by a two-week, three-game playoff format.
“I just felt that the way the calendar was structured that — even if you went to the championship game on July 3 — you had enough time to let your body get healed up to get into an NFL playbook,” Johnston said. “You’re already in football shape, you just finished a 10, 11, 12 game season. Your body is contact ready for football.”
By all accounts, the USFL had a successful inaugural season, capped off by a highly-entertaining championship game. Another win for the USFL was the fact that they were the first spring league in over 20 years to complete their season.
Along with those successes, Johnston feels one of the USFL’s biggest successes is its growing partnership with the NFL, as NFL games this season will be littered with former USFL stars.
“We know what kind of brand of the NFL is, and we know that we’re not going to be able to compete with that,” Johnston said. “We want to be a stand alone professional football league that provides a non-traditional route to the NFL.”