Analyzing The Michigan Panthers Protected Players & UFL Draft Picks

Analyzing The Michigan Panthers Protected Players & Draft Picks

The Michigan Panthers made some noise during the UFL Dispersal Draft this past Friday. After protecting the players they wanted to keep on the roster, GM Steve Kazor and HC Mike Nolan picked up tremendous talent from dissolved USFL teams.

In this article, we will take a look at each draft pick for Michigan – and, overview the athletes that they protected for training camp.

QB Davis Cheek | New Orleans Breakers

Davis Cheek is an intriguing pickup for the Michigan Panthers. He spent the 2023 USFL season as McLeod Bethel-Thompson’s backup in New Orleans. Cheek is a quarterback that John DeFilippo was looking to utilize during the 2024 season, but the Breakers ended up being a shelved team in the merger.

Clearly, the Panthers organization sees something in Cheek that they want to bring to Michigan. Davis played his college ball at Elon, throwing for 2,924 yards and 17 touchdowns during his senior season. Cheek had some NFL interest this past offseason, having a workout with the Las Vegas Raiders.

RB Wes Hills | New Orleans Breakers

With one of the biggest splashes in the UFL Dispersal Draft, the Michigan Panthers snagged the modern USFL rushing record holder, Wes Hills.

Hills burst onto the scene for New Orleans in week two of the USFL season, proving himself as one of spring football’s top running backs. In nine games, Hill rushed for 679 yards – which blew away the modern record. He also posted 10 rushing touchdowns, and added 278 receiving yards to his total tally.

Michigan’s already impressive backfield got even better with the addition of Wes Hills, who is primed to be a starter this year once again.

RB Matt Colburn II | Philadelphia Stars

One of the USFL’s most underrated running backs has found a new home in Michigan. Matt Colburn II has been a key piece to the Philadelphia Stars offense for two years, but unfortunately dealt with a season ending injury midway through the 2023 season.

It will be intriguing to see how the Panthers approach their running back room, as it is full of starters. Colburn racked up 751 yards and 12 touchdowns in Philadelphia, and was the spark the team needed in 2022 to make their Championship run.

Spring football is nothing new for Matt. He played in the XFL in 2020, and also had an outstanding stint in the TSL with the Blues. Colburn will now look to bounce back in 2024, fully healthy and ready for the UFL season ahead.

WR Corey Coleman | Philadelphia Stars

Corey Coleman needs no introduction. The Michigan Panthers needed help at the WR position, and got it with the USFL’s modern receiving record holder.

Coleman, a former NFL first round pick, lived up to the hype in the USFL this past season. He finished with 669 receiving yards and four touchdowns, and generated some NFL interest (49ers) following his campaign. Now, if he decides to return to spring football, he’ll be suiting up with the Panthers.

WR Devin Gray | Philadelphia Stars

Devin Gray is a wide receiver who isn’t talked about enough in the spring football scene. Gray has been extremely consistent for Philadelphia through two seasons. In 2022, he posted 215 receiving yards and two touchdowns as the team made a Championship run.

Then, Gray recorded over 500 receiving yards in 2023. He was part of the one-two punch with Coleman, providing the Stars with plenty of playmaking amidst their injuries on offense.

Gray also has plenty of NFL experience. He spent time with the Atlanta Falcons and Baltimore Ravens, and also had an opportunity with the Kansas City Chiefs after the 2022 USFL season.

WR Jordan Suell | Philadelphia Stars

Steve Kazor basically targeted every single Stars wideout other than Chris Rowland, picking up Jordan Suell in the draft on Friday.

Suell is another receiver who hasn’t gotten enough attention from the media. Jordan posted 370 receiving yards and three touchdowns in 2022, and had an outstanding Championship performance with two scores against Birmingham.

Unfortunately, his 2023 season would also end short midway through the year with a rib injury. Suell finished with 130 receiving yards this year, also making an impact on special teams after Rowland went down with an injury.

WR Terry Wright | Philadelphia Stars

Wrapping up the wide receiver selections is Terry Wright, who also played for the Philadelphia Stars in 2023. Wright saw his role grow quite a bit once Rowland and Suell were scratched for the year.

Terry made an impact on special teams, providing the team with a spark on multiple occasions. Most notably, his long return in week five allowed Luis Aguilar to kick the game winning field goal.

Wright finished second in the USFL with 754 kick return yards, averaging 31.4 yards per return. He also added 143 receiving yards and two touchdowns to his total tally.

Offensive Line

Jacob Burton (Stars): Burton brings stability to the line, having started in 9 of 10 games for Philadelphia in 2023. Had an NFL stint with the New York Giants, and started in 31 of his final 32 matchups at Baylor.

Drew Himmelman (Stars): Himmelman was a late season addition for Philadelphia, but immediately made an impact. His big frame (6’9”, 310 lbs.) makes him into an intriguing prospect for Michigan’s O-Line.

Ryan Pope (Stars): Ryan Pope was acquired by Philadelphia this offseason, in a trade with Birmingham. Pope helped lead the Stallions to the Championship in 2022, and rejoined the Stallions to provide depth down the stretch of the 2023 season.

Tristen Taylor (Stars): Tristen Taylor signed with Philadelphia for the 2023 season, and started in four of six games played.

Clearly, the Panthers were watching the Stars closely in 2023, considering the two shared the Detroit hub.

DE Nasir Player | Pittsburgh Maulers

The Pittsburgh Maulers had a defense full of playmakers, and Mike Nolan took notice. The Panthers picked up Nasir Player, who is another underrated athlete that deserves more attention.

Player was a starter for Pittsburgh during their Championship run, totaling 28 tackles and four sacks in 2023. His forced fumble in week ten against New Jersey sparked their playoff-clinching victory.

Nasir has posted 42 tackles and five sacks through two seasons with Pittsburgh, and now looks to build upon his spring football career with the Panthers.

LB Jerod Fernandez | New Orleans Breakers

Jerod Fernandez has found a new home. The former All-USFL linebacker in 2022 has been a staple in New Orleans through two seasons, but now helps fill an important hole for Michigan. As it stands right now, the DPOY – Frank Ginda – is not with the Panthers, having signed with the Atlanta Falcons practice squad.

With Ginda’s 2024 return up in the air, Nolan now secures a proven veteran for Christian Runza’s linebacker group. Fernandez has posted over 150 tackles, 12 TFL, 3 FF, 2 sacks, and an interception for the Breakers through two seasons.

Jerod Fernandez is an excellent addition for Michigan, who could serve as a vocal leader defensively in 2024.

DB/S Adonis Alexander | New Orleans Breakers

Adonis Alexander is another solid pickup for Michigan. He’s been a starter for New Orleans during the past two USFL seasons, totaling 53 tackles and two interceptions across that span.

Alexander finished the 2023 season as the highest graded Breaker according to PFF, at 80.2. He allowed less than 10 catches throughout the entire year, and was a top three safety in the USFL.

DB Alex Thomas | New Orleans Breakers

An under-the-radar story from 2023 was Alex Thomas, who came into his own with New Orleans in 2023. According to PFF, quarterbacks had a combined 53.0 QBR when throwing his way, which is the second lowest in the league.

Alex finished the year with 16 tackles and two interceptions, and now takes his talents to Michigan.

DB Keith Gipson Jr. | Pittsburgh Maulers

Keith Gipson brings a fierce edge and intensity to the table for Michigan. Gipson has played with Pittsburgh the past two USFL seasons, earning his rights by taking on some of the toughest assignments week in and week out.

Gipson racked up 53 tackles and three interceptions during his tenure with the Maulers. After re-signing with Pittsburgh for 2024, he now finds a new home with Michigan.

S Bryce Torneden | Pittsburgh Maulers

Michigan continues their collection of exceptional Maulers defenders, snagging Bryce Torneden during the dispersal draft.

Torneden has been a key piece to a dominant Pittsburgh defense. He earned All-USFL honors in 2022, posting 70 tackles, a sack, and an interception that year.

Bryce continued to be leader in 2023, finishing with 48 tackles and a sack. Torneden started in all ten regular season games, and played a major role in bringing a Division title to the Maulers.

S Shalom Luani | New Jersey Generals

Michigan, get ready to know Shalom Luani’s name. One of spring football’s hardest hitters has made his way to Ford Field, poised to make an impact in 2024.

Luani has played with New Jersey the past two USFL seasons. In 2022, he posted 31 tackles, one sack, and an impressive five interceptions, as the Generals ran through the league with a 9-1 record.

Shalom continued his excellent play into 2023, with 45 tackles and an interception. He dealt with some injuries that held him back throughout the year – so, expect a healthy Shalom to make some noticeable waves in 2024.

Special Teams | Brock Miller, Jordan Ober

The Michigan Panthers saw some changes in their special teams room. The team decided not to protect kicker Cole Murphy, or punter Kyle Kramer. In addition, they had never re-signed long snapper Shane Griffin.

Now, the team has brought in two of the top specialists in the USFL, with Brock Miller and Jordan Ober from the Generals.

Miller has been one of spring football’s elite punters over the past few years. He’s spent the last two seasons with New Jersey, seeing punts of 85 and 80 yards during that span. Brock has garnered some NFL interest following both USFL seasons, signing to the Los Angeles Rams practice squad in 2022.

Brock averaged 43.1 yards per punt in 2023. He led the USFL with 16 punts inside the opponents’ 20 yard line (eight inside the 10). What makes that stat-line so impressive is the fact that only 2.8% of his punts resulted in touchbacks.

On the other hand, Jordan Ober was an outstanding long snapper for New Jersey this year. Brock Miller and Nic Sciba were two of the top specialists in the league, which wouldn’t have been possible without Ober’s consistency. The Generals were a well oiled machine – largely due to Ober’s efforts. Jordan had a workout with the Arizona Cardinals following the season, and now fills a much-needed role in Michigan.

Protected Players

QB Danny Etling: Etling signed with the Panthers on Christmas Eve. The former LSU star spent a couple of years with the Packers, and not surprisingly is protected for 2024.

QB Brian Lewerke: Lewerke signed with Michigan midway through the 2023 season, primarily serving as the backup to Josh Love and E.J. Perry.

RB Nate McCrary: Joined the Panthers this offseason after a couple of NFL stints, most recently with the Cleveland Browns. Tallied 1,060 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns during his senior season at Saginaw.

RB Raymond Calais: Raymond is another offseason signing, flashing his speed during his time with the Los Angeles Rams. Calais is the type of player who could certainly be utilized on special teams in 2024.

RB Toa Taua: Toa signed with Michigan during the season but did not see much action at all. Considering Michigan protected him, it goes to show that they do plan on keeping him around for next season, at least to see what he can do in training camp.

WR Devin Ross: Devin Ross has been with the Panthers the last two USFL seasons. He had an excellent year in 2022, but did not see much production in 2023 due to being a late signing – and also dealing with some injuries.

WR Garett Maag: Maag signed with the Panthers this offseason, following a mini-camp opportunity with the Philadelphia Eagles. Garrett racked up 2,205 receiving yards and 19 touchdowns at North Dakota.

WR Marcus Simms: Marcus Simms, who was underutilized last season, is officially back. Simms took the USFL by storm during the final two weeks of the year, showcasing his speed – especially on special teams. Sparked the Panthers to their week ten victory.

WR Samson Nacua: Samson Nacua was an offseason signing for the Panthers, and is the brother to Kai Nacua. Samson was with the Pittsburgh Maulers in 2023, but was released just a couple of weeks into the season.

TE Cole Hikutini: Cole Hikutini came into his own for Michigan in 2023, and will likely play a big role with the offense again in 2024. He finished the year with 239 receiving yards and five touchdowns.

TE Gunnar Oakes: Gunnar Oakes was a USFL draft pick who ended up signing with Michigan in the summer. Oakes played his college ball at Eastern Michigan University, and now stays in the state with the Panthers.

OL Ryan Nelson: Nelson started in two of eight games with Michigan in 2023, and will look to build upon his success in 2024.

OL Gene Pryor: Pryor sticks around in Michigan, after starting all ten games in 2023. Pryor improved upon his play throughout the year, finishing with a 70.4 pass blocking grade according to PFF.

OT Josh Dunlop: Dunlop re-signed with the Panthers this offseason after spending the past two seasons with the team. He started in four of ten games with Michigan this year, finishing with a 76.4 PFF grade – fifth highest on the Panthers.

OT Jarrett Horst: The first overall pick of the USFL college draft signed with Michigan this summer. Horst is an intriguing prospect out of Michigan State, having spent time with the Miami Dolphins in the spring.

OT Chim Okorafor: Another offseason pickup is Chim Okorafor, who was also a college draft pick. He earned NAIA All-America selection honors in 2022 at Benedictine.

OT Phil Saleh: Saleh was one of the first offseason signings for Michigan. He earned All-America honors at Fordham in 2022.

OT James Walker: Walker played in a couple of games for the Panthers this past season. He was a midseason addition, providing depth when needed due to injuries.

C Noah Johnson: The Michigan Panthers retain their starting center, Noah Johnson. Johnson finished the USFL season with an offensive grade of 73.7, according to PFF – which makes it clear as to why Michigan wanted him back.

DT Daniel Wise: Daniel Wise recently signed to Michigan, following a few years in the NFL with the Washington Commanders – and most recently, Kansas City. Wise posted 124 tackles and 16 sacks during his career at Kansas in college.

DT T.J. Carter: Carter returns to Michigan, after a year off due to a practice squad stint with the Los Angeles Rams. He had 24 tackles and 2.5 sacks with the Panthers in 2022.

DT Garrett Marino: Marino proved to be an outstanding pickup for the Panthers from the CFL. He made plenty of quality plays throughout the year, finishing with 25 tackles and 2.5 sacks. According to PFF, Marino’s defensive grade in 2023 was 68.9.

DT Jamal Milan: Milan did not get a ton of playing time in 2023 (injuries playing a factor), but posted 11 tackles and a sack in just four games.

DT Walter Palmore: The big man, Walter Palmore, has been a key force in the trenches for Michigan. He has compiled 43 tackles across two seasons, and will remain on the roster heading into training camp.

EDGE D’Anthony Jones: D’Anthony Jones is an excellent pickup for Michigan, signing with the team during the offseason. After a mini-camp stint with the Chicago Bears, Jones is set to play with the Panthers in 2024.

EDGE Kenny Willekes: The former Michigan State product signed with the Panthers in December, bringing talent and depth to the front seven. Kenny posted 228 tackles and 24.5 sacks with Michigan State, and also played in several games for the Minnesota Vikings.

EDGE Ron’Dell Carter: Carter played in five games for Michigan this year, totaling four tackles and a sack.

DE Breeland Speaks: Breeland Speaks is back. A no-brainer on the protected list, Speaks led the USFL with nine sacks in 2023 – while also totaling 53 tackles. Speaks re-signed in late December, after spending time with the 49ers this offseason.

DE Tyree Johnson: Tyree Johnson signed during the final week of the season with the Panthers. While he didn’t see any playing time, Johnson is a talented prospect out of Texas A&M – with 100 tackles and 18 sacks to his name there.

LB DaShaun White: The USFL college draft pick has returned. White signed with Michigan during the season, and made an impact – especially on special teams. He had a preseason opportunity with the Bills, and now is back with Christian Runza’s linebackers unit.

LB Isaac Darkangelo: Isaac signed with Michigan a couple of weeks ago, and now has been protected by Mike Nolan. Darkangelo had an outstanding senior season at Northern Illinois, with 73 tackles and a sack.

LB Noah Dawkins: Noah Dawkins is an underrated playmaker, posting 35 tackles and an interception for Michigan in 2023. Dawkins is the type of player who could shine in 2024 if given the opportunity to start consistently.

FLEX Javin White: Javin White is a linebacker/cornerback hybrid who signed to the Panthers this offseason. He posted 199 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and nine interceptions throughout his college career. Expect White to play multiple roles with Michigan in 2024.

CB Keandre Evans: Evans wasn’t utilized much by Michigan in 2023, playing only 43 snaps. Across that span, though, his defensive grade was 78.2 according to PFF.

CB Kiante Hardin: Hardin signed with Michigan prior to the ‘23 season, but did not play often (only 4 snaps). If Kiante can get more snaps in 2024, expect him to make some plays. Hardin posted 45 tackles and two interceptions for the CFL’s BC Lions in 2021.

CB Levonta Taylor: Levonta Taylor needs no introduction. Taylor was a key starter for Michigan in 2023, not allowing a single touchdown all year long. Expect him to continue to make the same valuable plays in 2024.

S Corrion Ballard: Ballard has played with the Michigan Panthers for the last two seasons, totaling 62 tackles and an interception. Corrion started in all nine games played this past year.

S Cory Rahman: Rahman remains with Michigan for 2024, after battling injuries in 2023. Cory has compiled 19 tackles and a fumble recovery across the past two seasons.

S Warren Saba: Saba is an underrated retention for Michigan. After missing 2022 with an injury, Warren was tremendous in 2023, with 30 tackles and two interceptions.

SS Sean Mahone: Sean Mahone is also a playmaker who isn’t talked about enough. Mahone started nine of ten games in 2023, finishing with 53 tackles. Sean had the 4th highest PFF grade on the team (77.5).

FS Kai Nacua: Speaking of PFF grades, Kai Nacua finished with the 2nd highest grade on the Panthers, at 83.1. Nacua posted 31 tackles in just five games – as he was finally activated in week six against Birmingham.

K Jake Bates: Jake Bates is an interesting protection. Bates is a kickoff specialist, not a kicker. The USFL kickoff is likely the main reason why Jake was signed – but, it will be intriguing to see what happens if the Panthers don’t sign another kicker for training camp.

Unprotected Players

The Michigan Panthers opted to not protect the following players:

QB Carson Strong
RB Reggie Corbin
WR AJ Richardson
TE Josh Babicz
T Keith Williams
T Eric Abojei
G Kyle Fuller
G Denzel Okafor
Edge Vantrel McMillan
LB Paddy Fisher
CB Devin Hafford
S Tyree Robinson
K Cole Murphy
P Kyle Kramer

Reggie Corbin is a name that immediately sticks out. Corbin was an All-USFL back for Michigan in 2022, and made an impact in 2023. With the amount of talent that the Panthers picked up in their backfield already, though, who knows if he will return.

One would also expect for the team to pick Cole Murphy back up, as he’s been their starting kicker for the past two seasons.

Any of these players will be able to be selected by USFL or XFL teams during the super draft on January 15th.

With the super draft right around the corner, the Michigan Panthers will have the opportunity to continue to build upon their roster for 2024. Training Camp roster sizes will allow for 75 players, but the team will have to cut down to 50 for the regular season.

What are your thoughts on the Michigan Panthers current roster? Which UFL prospects should the team pursue? Let us know down in the comments below, or join the conversation on Discord!