2024 UFL DC Defenders Season Summary

Davin Bellamy #7 of the DC Defenders celebrates with teammates after recovering a fumble during the fourth quarter against the San Antonio Brahmas at Audi Field on May 05, 2024 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/UFL/Getty Images)

This is part four of what will be an eight-part look at each UFL team’s 2024 season. 

Part One: Houston Roughnecks

Part Two: Memphis Showboats

Part Three: Arlington Renegades

What went right

DC offered its players stability, retaining the same head coach-offensive coordinator-defensive coordinator combo for the second year in a row. That allowed holdovers from last year to better perfect their work within the system, and allow them to help train new players on schematic expectations. QB Jordan Ta’amu had another fine statistical season, proving once again he can be a quarterback with whom a team can win. Former NFL draft pick WR Kelvin Harmon was able to resurrect his career before a late-season injury. Young players like WR Ty Scott and LB Momo Sanogo saw increased playing time as the season progressed, which aided their development. Speaking of young players, rookie P Paxton Brooks did a nice job in his first pro season. Chris Rowland returned the only kickoff for a touchdown in the UFL this season and locked down both the punt and kick returns jobs.

What went wrong

The slide began before the season, when starting RB Abram Smith went down in training camp with a torn ACL. The offense was built around Smith’s ability to pound the rock, and without him, the run game suffered. Neither Cam’Ron Harris nor Darius Hagans were able to come close to replicating Smith’s production from 2023. Ta’amu turned the ball over too much (nine interceptions) and sans D’Eriq King, the offense lacked a spark. Despite several players returning on defense – five of the six top tacklers in 2024 played for DC in 2023 – that side of the ball struggled, finishing last in the league in stopping the run. DC graduated several players to the NFL from last year’s 9-1 team and appeared to lack adequate replacements for them, resulting in a five-win dip from the team that reached the XFL Championship.

Offensive MVP

It’s probably not a good thing that the offensive MVP of a team is a lineman, but I’m going with RG Liam Fornadel here. After starting for two years in DC, he finally got an NFL shot this year, signing with the New England Patriots. Fornadel started all 10 games for the Defenders, and was the team’s highest-graded full-time offensive player by Pro Football Focus. He gave up no sacks and just six hurries on 380 pass block snaps this season, per PFF. Fornadel scored a high grade in run-blocking as well, and he was able to do all this as the Defenders were forced to change offensive line coaches mid-season. That didn’t seem to negatively effect Fornadel’s work.

Defensive MVP

The pass rush in the nation’s capital was not as ferocious as it was last year. However, someone forgot to tell DE Malik Fisher. All he did was lead the Defenders in tackles for loss and sacks, bat down three passes, and add a forced and fumble recovered. He was a beneficiary of defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’ attacking defense and was mostly aligned outside the tackles where he could use his closing speed and quick twitch to his advantage. The Villanova University product is hoping he did enough this year for NFL teams to take notice.

Chris Rowland #12 of the DC Defenders returns a kickoff against the Arlington Renegades during the first quarter at Audi Field on June 02, 2024 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Jess Rapfogel/UFL/Getty Images)

Special Teams MVP

The return game proved to be in good hands with KR/PR Chris Rowland. The 5’8″ speedster out of Tennessee State was a Super Dispersal Draft selection by the Defenders, having played the previous two seasons in the USFL with the now-defunct Philadelphia Stars. Rowland added value out of the slot, but his biggest contributions came as a returner. In addition to scoring the only kickoff return touchdown in the UFL, Rowland registered 270 more kick return yardage than the runner-up in that statistical category. He also averaged more than 10 yards per punt return. DC may be tempted to get him more involved in the offense in 2025, though they should be careful not to do so to the detriment of his contributions as a returner.

Most likely to succeed (in getting NFL opportunities)

As of this writing, the Defenders, despite their 4-6 record, have had the most players in the UFL try out for NFL teams (among those tryouts that have been made public). Fornadel has already been locked up, and with the increased importance of returns in the NFL this year, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Rowland get a shot somewhere. Pass rush is always at a premium in the NFL, so DEs Fisher and Derick Roberson have already tried out and could end up signing. I know some people believe Ta’amu is an NFL-level quarterback, but I’m not sure he’s going to get an opportunity this year. Then again, I wrote something similar last year and he did have a cup of coffee with the Minnesota Vikings near the end of training camp.

QB concern level for 2025 (1-5)

Like Luis Perez in Arlington, there’s a question as to how long Ta’amu wants to keep doing this, especially if that NFL window is truly closing. He didn’t agree to come back until late in the process this year, likely with a pay cut from what he was making in the XFL in 2023. If Ta’amu opts out, Deondre Francois and Jalan McClendon are behind him on the depth chart, with McClendon more likely to be a long-term piece for the Defenders. It would still be a step down from Ta’amu, however. Given the uncertainty surrounding Ta’amu, this is higher than it would be if there was more confidence Ta’amu would be back. I’ll split it down the middle and go 2.5.

Head coach Reggie Barlow of the DC Defenders looks on during the third quarter game against the Arlington Renegades at Choctaw Stadium on April 13, 2024 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Sam Hodde/UFL/Getty Images)
Head coach Reggie Barlow of the DC Defenders looks on during the third quarter game against the Arlington Renegades at Choctaw Stadium on April 13, 2024 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Sam Hodde/UFL/Getty Images)

Head coach hot seat rating (1-5)

Reggie Barlow’s goal is to make it into the NFL coaching ranks, even if it means taking a coordinator or position coach job and then working up from there. The problem is the UFL schedule is not kind to coaches trying to get NFL positions – they are filled by the time the UFL season ends. Spring leagues tend to be year-to-year, and that goes for coaches as well. As with others, it’s not so much whether the league wants Barlow back, it’s whether Barlow wants to return. It’s conceivable he could get an ancillary position on an NFL staff at this point (think “offensive analyst”) as his foot in the door. Since this is a “hot seat” rating and not a rating on the overall likelihood of Barlow coming back, the number will be low. 1.5.

Offseason needs for 2025

The big questions are at quarterback and running back. Will Ta’amu and Smith be back? And if Smith DOES come back, what will be his level of effectiveness coming off a torn ACL? The backs they had this year didn’t work, but was that because of poor blocking or the backs themselves? If Smith does return to health, DC could use some breakaway ability at the position that they didn’t get from Smith’s replacements, Harris and Hagans. There’s decent depth at both receiver and tight end. Tackling must be upgraded at all three levels of the defense. Linebacker and the defensive interior were two trouble spots in particular. DC began to stockpile young players as the season wore on, likely with an eye toward the future.

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