Two star defenders from the 2022 United States Football League’s inaugural season signed NFL contracts today. DeMarquis Gates, considered one of the top linebackers in the USFL this spring, has signed with the Bears, according to Matt Lombardo of Heavy Sports. Edge rusher Chris Odom, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year for the USFL, signed today with the Browns, according to Aaron Wilson of Pro Football Network.
Gates has dipped his toe in the NFL before, spending offseason or practice squad time with Cleveland, Washington, and Minnesota. In between all of those stints and now, Gates played in the Alliance of American Football in 2019, the XFL in 2020, and the Canadian Football League in 2021, before dominating in the USFL this past spring. His persistence in sticking with professional football no matter the league could pay off with his newest NFL opportunity.
The Bears cupboard is fairly thin at linebacker behind Roquan Smith after losing Alec Ogletree to free agency and trading away Khalil Mack. Chicago responded to the losses by bringing former Raiders linebacker Nicholas Morrow and former Colts linebacker Matthew Adams. Neither have extensive full-time starting experience and Morrow, who has the greater amount of starting experience, didn’t play at all in 2021 due to a foot injury. If Gates can impress in the preseason, not only could he snag a roster spot, he could earn a key role on the Bears’ defense.
After earning the Defensive Player of the Year award for the USFL this spring, Odom has been auditioning all over the NFL, taking workouts with the Bengals, Cardinals, Chiefs, Saints, and Texans, before eventually acing the workout with the Browns. Odom has a bit more NFL experience, racking up 16 tackles in 11 games played. Odom spent offseason and practice squad time with the Falcons in 2017 and 2019, getting waived after both stints and finding his way to NFL action immediately after both times. In 2017, Odom signed with the Packers and got six tackles over seven games. In 2019, Odom signed with Washington and got 10 tackles and 2.0 sacks in just four games. In between those opportunities, Odom spent time in the AAF in 2018 and the CFL in 2021 before dominating USFL offenses. Odom, like Gates, is now being given an opportunity to be a golden example of what happens when you don’t give up on your NFL dreams.
Cleveland famously has two of the league’s better pass rushers in Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney. The two combined for over half of the Browns’ sacks last year with 25.0. The depth behind Garrett and Clowney is not ideal, though, with rookie third-round pick Alex Wright and former Vikings defensive end Stephen Weatherly as the primary backups on the depth chart. Odom has a real opportunity to find his way into the pass rushing rotation after leading the USFL with 12.5 sacks this past spring.
The USFL is striving to do what many other fledging leagues have attempted: cement their status as a minor league to the NFL. If top performers like Gates and Odom can find their way onto NFL rosters and into key roles, it could say a lot about the staying power of the USFL as a potential feeder-league.