Former Lions Starter Earns Honor as One of USFL’s Top Players

Detroit Lions


John Atkins Sr. had a mostly unremarkable two-season tenure with the Detroit Lions, but now is making the most of his second chance in the USFL.

The nose tackle earned All-USFL team honors, the league announced on June 22. The 30-year-old made 29 total tackles this season including two sacks, and earned Defensive Player of the Week honors in Week 7.

Atkins joins a number of other former Lions players who made an impression in the second season of the revived league.

Former Lions Star Shines in USFL

Atkins appeared in 14 games over two seasons in Detroit in 2018 and 2010, with six starts in the 2019 season. He made a total of 22 tackles during that time, serving as the anchor of the team’s defensive line.

After Atkins chose to take a COVID opt-out in the 2020 season, he spent time with the Atlanta Falcons in 2021 without ever making the active roster, then joined the USFL last year in its inaugural season.

The former Georgia Bulldogs star told The McDuffie Progress in 2022 that he saw the new league as an opportunity to show what he could still do on the field.

“I wanted to showcase I could still play,” Atkins said.

Atkins was drafted by the Tampa Bay Bandits in the USFL’s draft in 2022, playing one season there before transferring to the Memphis Showboats when the Bandits franchise went on hiatus.

Atkins still has some bigger plans beyond the USFL, telling The McDuffie Progress that he would like to play in the NFL again.

“I want to get back to the NFL, get back into shape, work on my craft, and get better,” Atkins said.

A number of players have already made the jump from the USFL to the NFL, with Fox Sports reporting that 15 former USFL players made final cuts on NFL teams last summer.

The Lions found talent in the USFL last year, signing wide receiver Maurice Alexander after a strong season with the Philadelphia Stars where he caught 20 passes for 234 yards and two touchdowns.

Alexander spent most of the season on Detroit’s practice squad but was elevated to the active roster for three games, and signed a reserve/futures contract with the Lions in January.

Other Former Lions Players Shine in USFL

As Jeff Risdon of USA Today’s Lions Wire noted, a number of other former Detroit players were honored on the All-USFL teams — including a former college teammate of Atkins.

“Atkins’ college teammate at Georgia, DT Toby Johnson, ended the 2017 NFL season on Detroit’s practice squad,” Risdon wrote. “He had a chance to make the squad in 2018 but suffered an injury and was released off the Lions’ injured reserve during the roster cutdowns. Johnson had an outstanding season for the New Jersey Generals, making All-USFL for the second straight year.”

Cornerback Mark Gilbert, who played eight games for the Lions in the 2021 season, was also honored on the All-USFL team after leading the league with four interceptions. Offensive tackle Jarron Jones, who was on the Lions’ practice squad in 2018, also earned All-USFL honors for the second straight season.

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