For the first five seasons of his professional football career, former Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Brian Allen was good enough to play among the best as a member of the NFL, but he wasn’t among the best of the best, meaning his time in the NFL was spent mostly as a part-time player on the practice squad or on special teams. Now in his sixth year as a pro, Allen is forging a different path. With the Birmingham Stallions of the USFL, he’s been a full-time starter at cornerback for the first time in a log time.
In the NFL players that are starters and backups — the first and second teams — get the vast majority of the practice time. The rest of the squad is used as a scout team and collects whatever scraps may be leftover by an injury or an absence from one of the top units. Players can earn game reps on special teams, but if a player can’t crack that two-deep, playing time is almost unheard of.
It’s a difficult environment to develop as a player. For most players, college football is their development. Players come to the NFL with three, four, or even five years of college experience in the case of some like rookie quarterbacks Kenny Pickett and Chris Oladokun.
That time serves as their development for the league, and catapults them into the conversation to get more playing time as they go forward. But if it doesn’t, players can fall into that in-between. Pickett not being in the top three at the quarterback has been noted by some as a potential problem if he’s going to remain in the quarterback battle when the team gets to camp. Pickett is a first-round draft pick at the game’s most important position. He’ll find a way. But for a player like Allen, falling into that gap made it even tougher for him to break through.
Allen played just two years of cornerback at Utah after making the transition from wide receiver to defense. He was drafted by the Steelers in the fifth round of the 2017 NFL Draft.
He spent two full seasons and a third training camp with the Steelers before being placed on injured reserve and subsequently released in 2019. Despite the Steelers struggling to find reliable cornerback options to play next to Joe Haden throughout that time, Allen played exactly zero defensive snaps in his time with the team.
After being cut by the Steelers, he moved on to the Seattle Seahawks, Buffalo Bills, San Francisco 49ers, Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns over the last three seasons. Allen was obviously sought out as the kind of player that NFL teams wanted to have on their roster. There is a large shortage of 6-foot-3, 215-pound corners that can run, regardless of how good they are.
But through all those travels, he got just 24 snaps of NFL game experience. Five years in the NFL to play 24 snaps. It’s not a surprise that he hasn’t improved enough to claim a role in that time.
After the end of his 2021 season with Cleveland, Allen tried a different tact. He joined the USFL, looking for steady playing time to help showcase his ability and improve his technique.
“How I got to the NFL, playing wide receiver my whole life, switching over at the end of my college career, most of my time in the NFL has been mostly with special teams,” Allen said Monday at the USFL’s championship game media day. “So I haven’t had a really good chance to prove would I could do at the position. Getting out here, I’m so grateful for them giving me a chance to show that I can be something other than a special teams player. It means a lot.”
The plan has its limitations. Allen had to transition directly from his last game with the Browns on Jan. 9 to his first game with the Stallions on April 16. He’s played a 10-game regular season, one USFL playoff game and will play his 12th when the Stallions take on the Philadelphia Stars in the championship game this Sunday.
If his plan works out, and an NFL team sees him as valuable playing cornerback and not just a big, fast athlete, he could be running from that right into a NFL training camp later in July. But for him, it’s a sacrifice that would be worth it.
“No excuses,” Allen said. “These guys sitting next to me, the guys in the locker room, the keep me going. They make me feel appreciated. To showcase all of my other talents, it means a lot.”
The USFL has committed to a second season in 2023. Whether the league works financially will be a mater of how many fans and television eyeballs it can attract as it moves from the centrally located model of this year to one that will include more significant expenses. But for the players that are signing up to join the nascent league, the success of players like Allen in being able to showcase their talents and work back to the NFL could have just as much impact on whether they want to sing up for spring football.