Welcome to the inaugural edition of the Alliance of American Football (AAF) Weekly Barometer, a column in which I’ll strive to take a pulse on the week-to-week state of the league by highlighting some of the best performers on each team. The AAF already has three weeks’ worth of games in the books, and the strengths and weaknesses of each team are naturally starting to come into clearer focus.
The same applies to individual player performances to a significant extent. With its role as a developmental/second-chance league, the AAF’s depth charts are admittedly a bit more fluid than one would see in the NFL, including at the skill positions. However, there are already multiple players on each team that have secured established roles and volume through their play.
Unsurprisingly, many boast a significant amount of prior NFL experience — Birmingham Iron RB Trent Richardson, Memphis Express RB Zac Stacy, Orlando Apollos WR Charles Johnson and San Diego Fleet TE Gavin Escobar among them.
However, the AAF is also starting to develop its own stars. Former Division II standout RB Ja’Quan Gardner has already racked up 281 rushing yards and three touchdowns for the Fleet. San Antonio Commanders WR MeKale “Big Play” McKay has generated an 11-207-1 line through three games. And Apollos RB D’Ernest Johnson has been the epitome of efficiency, racking up 171 rushing yards and one touchdown at 6.6 yards per carry while adding another score on three receptions.
Before delving into this week’s biggest risers and fallers, a look at the most notable areas where the AAF rulebook diverges from that of the NFL:
- No kickoffs; each team begins any game-opening/second-half-opening and post-score drive at its own 25-yard line.
- No extra points; two-point conversion attempts are mandatory after each touchdown.
- No onside kicks; teams will have the option of running a “4th-and-12” play from their own 28-yard line in lieu of onside kicks. The play will only be made available if a team is trailing by 17 points or more or if they’re trailing with 5 minutes or fewer left in regulation.
- Teams that are scored upon via a safety also have the option of attempting to gain possession by running this same play from their own 18-yard line.
- 35-second play clocks, as opposed to the 40-second clocks utilized in the NFL.
- All overtime periods played under “Kansas Playoff” rules. Each team begins on the opponent’s 10-yard line and given four chances to score. No field goals are allowed in overtime. If the score remains tied after each team has had a possession, the game ends in a tie.
- No more than five defensive players may rush on any one play. Any players on the defensive side of the line of scrimmage at the snap count towards those five players whether they rush or not.
- Pass rushing from a starting position that is more than two yards outside the widest offensive lineman and more than five yards from the line of scrimmage (defensive pressure box) is prohibited. However, there are exceptions to this rule on play-action or run-pass option plays, or if the ball leaves the tackle box.
- Violations of the aforementioned defensive alignment rules will prompt a 15-yard illegal defense penalty.
- Finally, a “sky judge” situated in a suite above the field acts as the ninth member of the officiating crew and will have access to review each play. The sky judge will have the ability to correct any on-field officiating errors that it deems “egregious.”
With those particulars out of the way, let’s delve into some quick hits on each team from a fantasy perspective heading into Week 4:
- QB Garrett Gilbert finds himself atop the fantasy points (79.4), passing yardage (827 yards) and passing touchdowns (five) leaderboards, while also putting up an average of 27 pass attempts over the first three games. While Gilbert generated his lowest passing yardage output (207) of the first three contests in Week 3, it’s worth noting he showed off another dimension to his game — the former Carolina Panther carried seven times for 43 yards and notched his first rushing TD of the season.
- After two highly efficient performances to open the campaign (13 carries for 92 yards and a 33-yard touchdown reception), D’Ernest Johnson parlayed a lead-back role in Week 3 against the Express into a 13-79-1 line on the ground, supplementing with a pair of grabs for 18 yards. Much more effective than opening-week starter Akeem Hunt, the early-down role appears to be in Johnson’s hands heading into Week 4, with 225-pound bruiser De’Veon Smith around to vulture some goal-line work and give Johnson the occasional breather.
- On the receiving front, former Viking Charles Johnson remains the top option despite coming back down to earth a bit in Week 3 after a seven-catch, 192-yard Week 2 tally. Johnson still leads the AAF with 305 receiving yards and ranks fourth in both targets (20) and air yards (304).
- Former NY Jet Jalin Marshall has been an excellent complementary piece with 150 receiving yards, two touchdown grabs and a 16.0 aDOT (average depth of target) that ranks him second only to the Iron’s Quinton Patton in terms of receivers who’ve logged multiple receptions.
- Given head coach Steve Spurrier’s offensive philosophy and the potential for multiple pass catchers to thrive within it, the likes of Chris Thompson and Rannell Hall are worth keeping an eye on. Hall particularly shined in Week 3, leading the team with a 4-68-1 line.
- QB Luis Perez has been steady, but that’s about the most exciting thing that can be said about the prolific Division II star thus far. Perez is still looking for his first touchdown pass through three games, as coach Tim Lewis has opted to go with RB Trent Richardson in the red zone with great success thus far. Perez does have a trio two-point conversion passes, but he’s been loathe to attack downfield — his 5.8 yards per attempt ranks him sixth among the seven QBs that have started each of the first three games.
- Speaking of Richardson, his touchdown equity has been off the charts, and likely unsustainable as a result. The 2012 first-round pick of the Browns has six touchdowns on an AAF-leading 59 carries, while his 10-68 line through the air, which includes a pair of two-point conversion receptions, has served as a nice bonus. And while Richardson’s 2.5 yards per rush is admittedly an eyesore, his status as the early-down back appears secure considering backfield mate LaDarius Perkins profiles much more as a pass-catching, change-of-pace option.
- Despite some of Perez’s conservative tendencies, WR Quinton Patton finds himself third in both receiving yards (209) and targets (21), as well as tops in air yards (386) and aDOT (18.4) for receivers with multiple receptions. Efficiency has been another matter however, as Patton currently sports a mediocre 52.4 percent catch rate.
- There aren’t many threats to Patton’s targets, either, as L’Damian Washington (6-55), Tobias Palmer (5-54) and DeVozea Felton (4-53) have failed to truly emerge as clear-cut No. 2 options.
- Coach Mike Singletary saw enough of QB Christian Hackenberg through the first two-plus games to determine he wasn’t the answer for his still-winless club. Enter former Tennessee Titan Zach Mettenberger, who has a flair for the big play and some gunslinger in him if nothing else. Mettenberger came on in relief in a Week 3 loss to the Apollos after Hackenberg threw two interceptions and completed nine of 12 passes for 120 yarsd and a pair of passing scores. While Memphis came up on the wrong end of a 21-17 score, Mettenberger did enough to earn himself a starting shot in Week 4 versus the San Diego Fleet.
- RB Zac Stacy is another former NFL back looking for a second chance at the big show, and he’s made a solid case for himself in that regard thus far. The 2013 fifth-round pick of the Rams generated the AAF’s first 100-yard rushing performance in Week 2 against the Hotshots and also acquitted himself well (12-58) in a blowout loss to the Iron in the opener. While he found tough sledding on the ground (14-29) against the Apollos in Week 3, the good news is his volume has been steady as Singletary unsurprisingly looks to win on the principles of a strong running game and defense.
- Mettenberger’s elevation to starter would appear to be good news for a potential-laden group of receivers that includes Reece Horn, Alton “Pig” Howard, Dontez Byrd and Devin Lucien. Horn has particularly been an effective possession option (8-95 on 15 targets), but the biggest beneficiaries of Mettenberger’s strong arm could be speedsters Byrd and Lucien.
- The Legends join the Express as the two winless teams through three weeks, but there’s some glimmer of hope in the play of QB Matt Simms. The 30-year-old likely has a very slim chance of ever securing an NFL roster spot again, but he appears capable of developing into a serviceable AAF signal-caller if he can get better protection and continue developing rapport with his receivers. Simms actually led all QBs with 328 passing yards and added a touchdown in Week 3, but he offset his strong numbers with three interceptions.
- Simms’ 59.4 completion percentage is actually better than that of undefeated quarterbacks Garrett Gilbert of the Apollos and Luis Perez of the Iron, but his six interceptions pace the league. As stated earlier, more time in the pocket should allow him to cut down on his mistakes, and Simms does have some big-play potential in his receiving corps.
- The veteran quarterback could also use more help from a running game that’s been the AAF’s worst statistically. The Legends’ top rusher is Lawrence Pittman, but he’s accrued all of 72 ground yards. Tarean Folston (2.9 yards per carry) and Denard Robinson (1.3 yards per carry) are doing next to nothing to help keep defenses honest.
- Simms’ aforementioned passing game weapons include Seantavius Jones (10-138), Malachi Jones (6-95-1) and Montay Crockett (4-71-1), all who could certainly find themselves racking up plenty of production if the Legends’ defense continues to put the offense in favorable fantasy game scripts. Jones, who’s spent time with four different NFL teams, is already second in targets (23) in the league, while his 313 air yards rank third behind Patton and the Commanders’ McKay.
San Diego Fleet
- Mike Martz’s trademark offense got off to a slow AAF start with only six points in Week 1, but a change under center from Mike Bercovici — who made more headlines with the hellacious hit he took in the opener than with his play — to Philip Nelson has paid dividends. Nelson seems to be improving weekly and was at his best in Week 3 in San Diego’s rematch against San Antonio, completing 17 of 25 passes for 193 yards and a pair of touchdowns in a comfortable 31-11 victory.
- Going somewhat against the grain of his pass-happy reputation, Martz has wisely kept the ground game just as important a component of his offense thus far. It’s difficult not to when you have what the likes of Ja’Quan Gardner and Terrell Watson to hand the ball off to.
- Gardner dominated at Division II Humboldt State in his college years, tallying 2,266 rush yards in his sophomore season alone and racking up an eye-popping 70 scores on the ground over his four campaigns. Gardner has displayed that same big-play flair in the AAF, most recently ripping off an 83-yard touchdown run in Week 3 to break the game open and averaging no fewer than 6.9 yards per rush in any of the first three contests on his way to a league-leading 283 rushing yards. A compact 5-foot-7 dynamo that evokes memories of Maurice Jones-Drew, and for an older generation, former Giant Joe Morris, Gardner seems to be building quite a case for an NFL training camp invite at minimum this summer.
- Meanwhile, Watson was an ideal complement to his speedier teammate in Week 3, turning 13 carries into 73 yards and notching a pair of two-point conversion rushes for good measure. The former Charger has been a workhorse the last two games, as he’d also logged 14 rushes in Week 2 against the Legends. At over 240 pounds, he’s seemingly the ideal Thunder to Gardner’s Lightning.
- The Fleet’s receiving corps has been somewhat overshadowed by the pair of talented backs, but there were some reasons for optimism in Week 3. WR Nelson Spruce, whose standout college career included back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons in his junior and senior seasons at Colorado, paced the pass catchers with a 4-50-2 line. Then, TE Gavin Escobar, one of the AAF’s more NFL-seasoned players, has enjoyed his exposure to the San Antonio Commanders defense. The 2013 second-round pick of the Cowboys has totaled eight receptions for 106 yards in his two games against San Antonio and is tied with slot receiver Brian Brown, another potential riser, for the team lead with 10 receptions. Dontez Ford and Francis Owusu, who’ve spent time on the Lions and Dolphins practice squads, respectively, are two other members of the receiving corps with the potential to contribute as Nelson gets more comfortable.
- The Hotshots entered the season with a fair share of hype and were installed as preseason favorites to win the inaugural AAF championship. Their season has mostly unfolded in accordance with that prognostication, although they did suffer their first defeat in Week 3 and lost quarterback John Wolford in the second half to a back injury. Owner of an impressive 6:2 TD:INT through the first two games, the Wake Forest product was 14-for-27 for 127 yards with a touchdown and interception against the Stallions last Saturday before going down. Wolford was back at practice Wednesday and throwing, so he appears to have a good chance of playing against the Legends in Week 4.
- Wolford has added a solid ground dimension to his production thus far, as he took off with the ball on 15 occasions through the first two weeks alone. While he gained a rather pedestrian 48 yards on those carries, he did notch one two-point conversion rush and has demonstrated he has the mobility to slide out of trouble, a particularly valuable skill in a league where offensive line play is still very much a work in progress.
- The Hotshots have boasted one of the more balanced attacks in the league thanks to the presence of Jhurell Pressley, Justin Stockton and Tim Cook, all who’ve had their moments through the first three games.
- Pressley has notably seen his carries and rushing yardage drop in each game thus far, but he has logged double-digit totes and has usually made the most of what his line affords him while averaging just under 4.0 yards per carry. Stockton is the shifty change-of-pace back of the group, and he’s impressively turned 16 carries into 113 yards and a touchdown while adding three receptions for 23 yards. And Cook, the certified bruiser of the trio at 245 pounds, showed some burst in Week 2 with a 28-yard rumble on his way to a 73-yard day. It remains to be seen how coach Rick Neuheisel will divide carries between the three week to week, but each looks well-suited for their respective roles thus far.
- The Arizona passing game has made plenty of noise as well thanks to Neuheisel’s playcalling, Wolford’s arm and a couple of receivers with some NFL pedigree. Former Bears and Redskins speedster Rashad Ross has been the biggest star, corralling 15 of 19 targets for 221 yards and four touchdowns through three games. As those numbers imply, Wolford and Ross already have a well-developed chemistry, and the latter has repeated shown the ability to get open downfield.
- Then, Josh Huff, a high-upside talent that failed to stick with both the Eagles and Buccaneers for a variety of reasons in recent years, has been held back in part by a poor catch rate (41.1 percent) on his 17 targets. However, Huff has already flashed his big-play ability with a 64-yard catch in Week 2, and he’s seen no fewer than four targets in any game.
- Other notables to keep an eye on from a fantasy perspective in the Hotshots’ high-octane air attack are the tight end duo of former Dolphin Thomas Duarte and ex-Cardinal Gerald Christian, who’ve each had solid games in the early going. WR Freddie Martino, who compiled 26 games of NFL experience with the Falcons and Buccaneers over the last four seasons, also made his first two catches of the season in Week 3.
San Antonio Commanders
- The Commanders have seen an impressive Week 1 start evaporate over the subsequent pair of games, and the inconsistent play of young QB Logan Woodside is partly to blame. The Toledo product has a strong arm and has displayed serviceable accuracy thus far, but he’s been done in by five interceptions. The two he threw to the other team in Week 3 earned him a second-half benching, as coach Mike Riley turned the reins of the offense to former North Carolina signal-caller Marquise Williams.
- Riley already started working Williams into the mix in Week 2, and he’d said at the time he plans to alternate both quarterbacks to an extent even when Woodside is playing well. Williams brings a strong running dimension, as evidenced by the 2,458 rushing yards and five rushing TDs he compiled in four college seasons. While Woodside is still the starter heading into Week 4, this is one scenario to keep an eye on.
- The Commanders’ ground attack boasts a trio of young NFL vets in Kenneth Farrow, David Cobb and Trey Williams. Farrow saw plenty of volume through the first two weeks with 27 total carries, but a combination of some back issues and game script played a part in limiting him to nine rushing touches in Week 3. Running room has been hard to come by in two of the first three games as well, but Farrow displayed excellent vision, power and burst while generating a 13-74-1 line in Week 2. When healthy, he may be the Commanders’ best all-around back.
- Cobb, a 2015 fifth-round pick of the Titans, has logged single-digit carries in each of the first three games as a complement to Farrow, and he brings more of a power component at close to 230 pounds. Williams could be the wild-card to watch here as the designated scat-back, however. The former Aggie never averaged under 5.8 yards per carry in any of his three college seasons. He flashed some of that same efficiency in his Week 3 debut with a 7-75 line against the Stallions, numbers he complemented with a 2-13 line through the air.
- The air attack has made plenty of headlines in San Antonio thus far, as it’s been one of the young league’s more well-rounded and exciting pass-catching units. The big-bodied Mekale McKay has parlayed his 6-foot-5 frame into a league-leading 27 targets, and although he’s only hauled in 11 of them, they’ve gone for 207 yards and a touchdown. McKay also ranks only behind the Iron’s Quinton Patton in air yards (371) and is clearly Woodside’s most trusted receiver thus far. However, former Steelers wideout De’Marcus Ayers made some noise with a 5-80 line in Week 2, while ex-college quarterback Greg Ward, Jr. is trying to translate his dynamic all-around skill set to the receiver position. Ward has already shown some promise in that regard by bringing in 10 of 17 targets for 101 yards, notching multiple receptions in each of the first three games as a steady secondary option.
Salt Lake Stallions
- The Stallions offense appeared to pick up some steam in Week 3. QB Josh Woodrum has been a catalyst overall, completing 60.4 percent of his attempts and throwing a pair of touchdowns and one two-point conversion pass in two games. Woodrum has actually only played one full contest thus far, as a hamstring injury suffered on a scramble in Week 1 cost him the rest of that contest and the Week 2 tilt as well. Woodrum was a four-year starter at Liberty that finished his college career with 61 passing touchdowns and another 16 on the ground, so he represents a dual threat that could be one of the AAF’s true success stories at QB as the season unfolds.
- Coming into the season, the ground attack was thought to be one of the strongest aspects of coach Dennis Erickson’s squad, given that it contained a pair of former solid NFL backs. Indeed, Branden Oliver and Matt Asiata have made their share of contributions through the first three games, but the Stallions have also found a rising AAF star in Joel Bouagnon. The Northern Illinois product got off to a slow start in Week 1 by gaining just 39 yards on 16 rushes, but he’s bounced back to generate a combined 23-115-2 line over the subsequent pair of games. Despite his sub-200-pound frame, Bouagnon has proven capable of shouldering a lead-back workload, already totaling 39 carries.
- For his part, Oliver has also seen a healthy allotment of rushing touches, logging 14 and 15 carries in Weeks 2 and 3, respectively. That’s certainly a higher volume than a back who’s been previously typecast as a change-of-pace option would expect to see, but the former Charger has been effective with the opportunity while totaling 139 rushing yards. He hasn’t even really gotten going in the passing game yet, either, but with 55 receptions in 30 career NFL contests, Oliver is undoubtedly very capable of thriving in that area of well.
- The strong play of Bouagnon and Oliver is increasingly rendering Asiata an afterthought, as he was a healthy inactive in Week 3. The 31-year-old power back did score one of his trademark short touchdowns in the opener, but he’s gained just eight yards on six carries overall and may not enjoy active status in many other games down the stretch as long as his aforementioned pair of backfield mates are healthy.
- Woodrum’s Week 2 absence served as an interruption to the development of the Stallions’ young receiving corps, as replacement Austin Allen struggled considerably. However, with Woodrum back under center in Week 3, it was WR De’Mornay Pierson-El who benefited the most. The former Nebraska Cornhusker hauled in all eight targets for 90 yards and a touchdown while spearheading the receiving corps. That could well be the case on many weeks going forward, too, although Jordan Leslie, who sat out the Week 3 contest due to injury, also appears capable of making some noise through the air after making three catches through the first two weeks and racking up 21 touchdowns in his college career.