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Offseason | 2024

Spagnola: UFL earning players a second chance


FRISCO, Texas – Daryl Johnston calls the United Football League, "the league of opportunity."

Some might call the UFL "Second Chance U."

Take your pick. But for the third consecutive offseason, the Cowboys have dipped into whatever iteration of these alternative spring leagues there is – first the USFL and now a merger between the XFL and USFL creating the UFL – by signing two players trying to restart once promising NFL careers.

DJ knows how some guys get cancelled out of the NFL, back when previously there was no alternative to turn to if trying to resurrect their careers. Some cancelled for size. Some for lack of speed. Some for injury. Some for off-field missteps.

But now there is an alternative and has been for the past three years.

Remember KaVontae Turpin's circuitous route into the NFL after his off-field misstep sent him packing from TCU and then took him basically all around the globe until surfacing in the 2022 USFL spring season. The Cowboys signed the USFL Offensive Player of the Year, and now heading into the 2024 training camp, just look where Turp is:

A feared NFL kick returner with the Cowboys trying to expand his role this summer into a viable receiving option in his third season.

Take Brandon Aubrey this past year. A first-time professional football kicker in the USFL for two seasons given a chance in 2023 to win the Cowboys' wide-open kicking job because of what he did in the USFL. Not only did Aubrey win the job, he was near perfect at age 28, earning Pro Bowl honors but also first-team All-Pro while setting the Cowboys' records for most points scored in a single season (157) and most field goals converted in a single season (36).

"When we get guys, we don't go by old news," Johnston said of those leagues' vetting process. "We've learned to revisit some cases. … Why guys might have been cancelled. We do the research."

So here we go again, the Cowboys dipping into the newly merged UFL early this week once the UFL player contracts expired on June 18, the Tuesday after the league's championship game that Birmingham won again on Sunday.

They signed Willie Harvey Jr., the All-UFL first-team linebacker of the St. Louis Battlehawks with all of two games of NFL experience. He had broken into the NFL from Iowa State in 2019 when the Cleveland Browns signed the 5-11, 230-pound linebacker as an undrafted free agent.

Dallas also inked Gareon Conley, the former Ohio State cornerback drafted by the Oakland Raiders in the first round of the 2017 draft, having started 26 of 31 NFL games played from 2017-2019 for the Raiders and then the Texans after being acquired in a 2019 trade for a third-round pick.

Who better to provide a scouting report on these two players than DJ, the former Cowboys fullback now head of UFL football operations, with a heavy hand in finding personnel for the eight-team league.

Let's start with Harvey, an outside linebacker who played so many defensive snaps the Battlehawks tried to get him off all the special teams snaps he was getting, only for the 28-year-old knowing better if he was to earn another chance in the NFL, saying, "No way."

"He kind of jumps out to you," Johnston said. "You think he's undersized until you see him play. He was great in our league.

"A lot of plays made by 51. Plays well in space."

Well, as we know the Cowboys need all the depth they can compile at linebacker heading into training camp, especially since new-old defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, as I'd like to title him, places a higher priority playing three true linebackers in his base defense.

Harvey led the UFL in total tackles (78) and tied for tops in tackles for loss (nine). He also led all linebackers with six passes broken up and was first among the St. Louis linebackers with four sacks, just one off the team lead.

Harvey was initially signed to the Browns' practice squad to start the 2019 season, then promoted to the 53-man roster a couple of weeks later before landing on IR with a shoulder injury two weeks after that. In the COVID year of 2020, he was waived on the final cut but re-signed late in the 2021 camp. He was released again but re-signed as a COVID replacement later in the season and then re-signed as a 2022 futures prospect but was released after camp.

That's when Second Chance U struck in November of that year, the then XFL Battlehawks drafted him for the 2023 spring season, and Harvey finished with 59 tackles in 10 games that year to earn another shot in 2024.

"Very, very competitive," Johnston said of watching Harvey closely during the 2024 season, but think he knows why the hard-playing linebacker had problems latching on in the NFL. "His body type takes some of the teams out of the mix, but is why our league is so important."

DJ says Harvey reminds him of a couple of undersized NFL linebackers who made it big, Jessie Tuggle (5-11) and Sam Mills (5-9), saying Harvey did fit into the St. Louis 4-2-5 scheme and is a good candidate when teams play a 4-2 nickel.

"And the good thing about our league," Johnston pointed out, "you don't have to wait to see the film."

There is a season worth of games just waiting for proof.

And the same goes for Conley. There is a huge gap between when the Raiders' 24th pick in the 2017 first round, who ran 4.44 time in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine, last played in the NFL in 2019 and when he then resumed this past 2024 season in the UFL for the D.C. Defenders.

Conley's start in the NFL got off to a rocky start, having been accused before the 2017 draft of sexual assault in Cleveland, though no arrest was made nor charges filed. But it took until July 31 that summer for the grand jury to "no bill" his case.

Then injuries started to compile. Missed the final 13 games in his rookie year with a tibia stress fracture. Had a good 2018 season starting for the Raiders until suffering a concussion. Experienced a neck strain in the 2019 opener with the Raiders, who then turned him into a third-round draft choice in the trade to Houston. Had a good season for the Texans – in 13 games finishing with 15 tackles, 13 pass breakups and one interception – but they decided not to pick up his fifth-year option for 2020.

Then came a series of new injuries, needing offseason ankle surgery. Conley spent the entire 2020 season on injured reserve and then had to have surgery to remove screws from the initial surgery late in December, scaring teams away in 2021 when the Texans let him walk into free agency.

And not until November 2022 did Conley receive a positive resolution to a civil case filed against him from the 2017 incident. So finally healthy again, too, Conley got back to football in 2024 in the UFL, playing for the Defenders and noted defensive coordinator/secondary coach Greg Williams.

"Playing for Greg, he was put in a lot of one-on-one situations," Johnston said, "so not afraid to be put in that position. It's just he couldn't stay healthy, and then his time away from football."

Well, the UFL got him back on the field, playing in seven of 10 games for the Defenders with 25 tackles, two interceptions and five PBUs, certainly enough to catch the Cowboys eye and evidently with his workout at The Star, too.

Heck, why not take an inexpensive chance on what likely is the 90th man on the roster for a month of training camp? Low risk on potentially high reward.

So here comes Conley. Just needs this second chance, sort of like the Cowboys gave Turpin, who by the way turns 28 during the second week of training camp. Needed another chance. Had a huge gap between being dismissed at TCU and playing in five different leagues over three years before landing with the Cowboys that summer of 2022.

"This kid is one of those," Johnston said. And the Cowboys needing depth at cornerback, might provide him a little longer rope than a guy who turns 29 at the end of this month and hasn't played football for four seasons might expect.

But at least he gets a chance. Harvey, too.

Thanks to the UFL proving ground.

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