Here are some former college stars and NFL draft picks to watch in the AAF
The Alliance of American Football (AAF) has developed into the most anticipated startup league to enter the U.S. sports scene in quite some time. The AAF has made headlines over the last couple of months because of their business model, strong media partners, big-name coaches, and the players that will be wearing their uniforms. The debate about the AAF initially was whether or not it could compete with the NFL and other leagues, or if it was just another offseason alternative. Now, there is plenty of intrigue surrounding the on-field product that will finally be unveiled when the AAF kicks off play Feb. 9 and 10.
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Besides getting our first look at the AAF as a league, football fans also will get a better look at the players involved. The rosters of the eight AAF franchises are littered with former college standouts, many who starred at schools located close to their current team. There also a number who have played in the NFL or spent time in another professional football league. While the head coaches and the quarterbacks are sure to get a lot of attention, they aren't the only ones worth paying attention to.
Arizona Hotshots — Will Sutton, DT
The Hotshots will play their home games at Sun Devil Stadium on the campus of Arizona State University. That territory is extremely familiar for Sutton. From 2009-13, the defensive lineman recorded 113 tackles, 32 tackles for a loss, 16.5 sacks, six pass deflections, and four forced fumbles for the Sun Devils.
A third-round pick (82nd overall) in the 2014 NFL Draft by Chicago, Sutton spent three seasons with the Bears before trying to find a home with the Vikings (2017) and 49ers (2018). In 36 games (all with the Bears), Sutton was credited with 60 tackles, four tackles for a loss, two quarterback hits, and seven pass deflections. Now he’s primed to anchor the Hotshots' defense.
Atlanta Legends — Justin Thomas, WR
While offensive coordinator Michael Vick and the rest of the coaching staff are still debating who the starting quarterback will be, his favorite target will likely end up being a former signal caller. Thomas was a three-year starter at Georgia Tech from 2013-16 during which he threw for 4,754 yards while running for another 2,412 in Paul Johnson's option-oriented attack. He accounted for 62 total touchdowns (40 passing, 22 rushing) in his 48 career games, but his weaknesses as a passer (48.7 career completion rate) were obvious.
He signed with the Saints as an undrafted free agent in 2017, taking part in their rookie minicamp as both a defensive back and wide receiver but was waived later that summer. He later spent a few weeks with the Rams and then spent some time on the Steelers' practice squad but nothing substantive ever materialized. Instead, his explosiveness and athleticism will be used by Vick in the Legends' offense and because of his experience as a quarterback, don’t be surprised if Thomas lines up under center for options and gadget plays.
Birmingham Iron — Trent Richardson, RB
Richardson is one of nine former Alabama players on the Iron's roster. A unanimous All-American and the Doak Walker Award winner in 2011, Richardson ran for 3,130 yards and was a part of two national championship teams (2009, '11) while playing for Nick Saban. The third overall pick of the 2012 NFL Draft by Cleveland, Richardson never really found his stride in the NFL.
After an encouraging rookie season that saw him post 950 rushing yards in 15 games, Richardson was traded to Indianapolis two games into the '13 campaign but he averaged a measly 3.1 yards per carry in 29 total games for the Colts. Cut by Indianapolis in March 2015, Richardson joined the Raiders and then the Ravens (2016), but a combination of ineffectiveness and injury ended his NFL career. Richardson then went to the Canadian Football League, spending the 2017 season with the Saskatchewan Roughriders and now is looking to restart his career back on American soil with the Iron.
Memphis Express — Julius Warmsley, DE
We all know that Mike Singletary loves defense. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that he’s giving an opportunity to a defensive lineman who’s still looking to break out in the professional ranks. Warmsley was a force to be reckoned with at Tulane from 2010-13. He saved his best for last, earning first-team All-Conference USA honors as a senior after posting 45 total tackles, 18 for a loss, six sacks, and two forced fumbles.
The NFL bypassed him in the 2014 draft, but he signed with the Texans as a free agent and after spending parts of two seasons on Seattle's practice squad he made the Dolphins' active roster in 2016 and played five games for them that season. While the NFL never fully worked out, Singletary will lean on his 6-foot-2, 268-pound playmaker up front.
Orlando Apollos — Akeem Hunt, RB
With Steve Spurrier running the show most of the attention will be on the passing game. But rest assured that he will also have a solid running game to back it up, thanks to Hunt. The former Purdue standout went unselected in the 2015 NFL Draft despite collecting 4,623 all-purpose yards and 20 total touchdowns for the Boilermakers. Hunt found a home with the Texans and ended up playing in a total of 30 games for Houston and later Kansas City from 2015-17. He was used on both offense and as a kickoff returner and while he was productive (5.1 yards per carry, 23.5 yards per return), he was never able to secure a permanent roster spot.
Now with the Apollos, Spurrier is sure to take advantage of all of Hunt’s abilities and make him into one of the AAF’s best offensive weapons.
Salt Lake Stallions — Josh Banderas, LB
With the AAF being all about opportunity, one player who will certainly take advantage of his is Banderas. A four-year contributor as a linebacker for Nebraska, Banderas made 31 starts for the Cornhuskers and finished his college career with 232 tackles (17.5 for a loss). While Banderas never found a home in the NFL, he's determined to prove that he belongs by anchoring the middle of the Stallions' defense for head coach Dennis Erickson.
San Antonio Commanders — Evan Rodriguez, TE
In addition to opportunities, the AAF also is about second chances. Rodriguez was a fourth-round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft by Chicago after three years at Temple. His combination of athleticism and versatility was what caught the Bears' attention, but injuries and some off-field issues led the team to cut ties with him after one unproductive (4 rec. for 21 yds. in 12 games) season. He went on to play for the Bills and Buccaneers but wasn't with either team for long.
After a brief stint in the National Arena League, Rodriguez is ready to redeem himself in the AAF where head coach Mike Riley figures to take advantage of his unique skill set for a player of Rodriguez' size (6-1, 243).
San Diego Fleet — Gavin Escobar, TE
One of the unique things about the AAF is that the eight teams are offering many players the chance to come back home. That's the case for Escobar, who starred at San Diego State before moving on to the NFL. A three-time All-Mountain West honoree for the Aztecs from 2010-12, Escobar will play his home games for the Fleet in the same stadium (now SDCCU) that he did for SDSU.
Escobar was taken in the second round (47th overall) by Dallas in the 2013 NFL Draft at which time he was considered the eventual heir apparent to Jason Witten, but that never materialized. After four seasons with the Cowboys, Escobar landed with the Ravens but he played in just two more games. He tried to latch on with the Dolphins last season but it didn't work out. For his career, Escobar recorded 30 catches for 333 yards and eight touchdowns over 64 games.
Now with the Fleet, Escobar has the benefit of playing for Mike Martz, an offensive-minded head coach who spent nearly 20 years in the NFL and was the mastermind behind the St. Louis Rams' "Greatest Show on Turf" offense.
Photos courtesty of AAF.