Cleveland Browns DB Kent Richardson had a career year with the Soul in 2012.
Aug 22, 2013
One year before earning ArenaBowl XXVI MVP honors with the Arizona Rattlers, receiver Rod Windsor was one of more than 30 Arena Football League players fighting for a roster spot in the NFL.
This season, as the always critical third week of preseason action gets underway, there are 42 AFL alums and assignees in NFL training camps. Though not all will make the final cut, the experience gained is invaluable and the realization of achieving a dream is unforgettable.
Not surprisingly, the AFL team with the most players on the NFL radar is the Arizona Rattlers. The first repeat ArenaBowl championship squad since 1996 has six former assignees in NFL camps, though only one – New York Jets defensive back Isaiah Trufant – saw significant playing time in Arizona. The others – Will Blackmon, Kamaal McIlwain, Derek Dennis and Brenton Bursin – were all assigned to the team, but did not play due to being signed by NFL squads.
The San Jose SaberCats have five former players currently on NFL camp rosters. Mark Grieb’s backup in 2011, McLeod Bethel-Thompson spent last season as the third-string quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings and figures to be in the mix again this year. The other four players are linemen, including Wayne Tribue – who was added by the San Francisco 49ers prior to this past season’s Super Bowl – and Dennis Godfrey – who was picked up by the Dallas Cowboys towards the end of the 2013 AFL season. Former SaberCats fullbacks Brian Folkerts and Jabari Fletcher have also earned shots as offensive and defensive linemen with the Carolina Panthers and Dallas Cowboys, respectively.
Caesar Rayford may be a name new to NFL fans, but his recent success with the Indianapolis Colts in the 2013 preseason should not come as a shock to any follower of the AFL. The former University of Washington defensive end recorded six sacks in eight games with the Utah Blaze in 2013 before heading up to Lucas Oil Stadium. Through two preseason games, the four-year Arena Football veteran has three sacks.
“He’s making a case for himself,” Indianapolis head coach Chuck Pagano told Colts.com after Rayford’s two-sack performance against the New York Giants last week. “He’s done a great job.”
Rayford is one of several former Blaze talents to receive a call from the NFL, but he’s not even the only former Utah player to join the Colts. Receiver Jeremy Kelley, who played with the Blaze in 2012 and was assigned to the Jacksonville Sharks in 2013, was added to the Indianapolis roster prior to the start of the 2013 AFL season. Indianapolis also recently added Orlando Predators receiver Maurice Williams to the roster, bringing their AFL player total to three. Why are the Colts so willing to provide opportunities to AFL players? It could have something to do with the background of the team’s general manager, Ryan Grigson. He got his start in pro football as a scout…in the Arena Football League.
Aside from Rayford and Kelley, there are four other Utah alumni who are fighting for roster spots as well. Tyler Clutts, who played fullback and linebacker for Utah in 2010, is now suiting up as a lead blocker for Arian Foster with the Houston Texans. Receiver Michael Preston, who played with the Blaze sparingly in 2011, has caught passes from Tennessee Titans quarterback Jake Locker for the past two seasons. Though they never played a down for the Blaze in 2013, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Nick Stephens and Minnesota Vikings receiver Lamark Brown were both assigned to the team prior to heading to the NFL.
The 2012 AFL Defensive Back of the Year, Kent Richardson, left the Philadelphia Soul prior to the start of the 2013 season to join the Cleveland Browns secondary. Another former Philadelphia defender, defensive tackle Tom Johnson, is fighting for a spot in the New Orleans Saints’ line rotation.
The New York Giants have added a pair of AFL receivers in former Iowa Barnstormers playmaker Marcus Harris and Pittsburgh Power human highlight reel Julian Talley. The Power have also propelled receiver Kenny Stafford to the Miami Dolphins and defensive back Royce Adams to the New York Jets, while current Atlanta Falcons kicker and longtime NFL veteran Matt Bryant got his start in pro football with the Barnstormers.
The Chicago Rush have sent a pair of defenders to the NFL in recent weeks. Defensive lineman Martin Parker is now lining up for the Seattle Seahawks, while defensive back Semaj Moody is trying to earn a roster spot with the Kansas City Chiefs. Meanwhile, the San Antonio Talons have sent three offensive talents to the outdoor game, including projected 2013 starting quarterback G.J. Kinne (Philadelphia Eagles), speedy receiver Robert Gill (Arizona Cardinals) and offensive lineman Ty Nsekhe (St. Louis Rams).
Of NFL teams, the Dallas Cowboys have added the most former AFL assignees with four (Anthony Armstrong, Fletcher, Godfrey and Stephens). The Detroit Lions, Indianapolis Colts, New York Giants, New York Jets and Tennessee Titans all have three former AFLers on their rosters.
Many more names on the AFL’s “Other League Exempt” list will make the jobs of NFL coaches and general managers more difficult come cut down day. Which players will make the cut is anyone’s guess, but with more than 40 AFL players and assignees on training camp rosters, there is no doubt the AFL continues to produce and attract top-tier talent.