Examining NFL Fits for AAF Players: East Edition

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With the Alliance of American Football suspending operations, the players in the league are able to sign on with NFL clubs without leaving their squad during the season. There are lots of players who should and will get cracks at NFL rosters. Two have already signed as of this writing: Orlando Apollos cornerback Keith Reaser signed on with the Kansas City Chiefs, and Arizona Hotshots wide receiver Rashad Ross has signed with the Carolina Panthers.

However, there are a lot more players who deserve a look. Today we’ll look at the best players from the East and what NFL teams should take a look at them, and the West will come tomorrow.

Orlando Apollos

Jordan McCray – Interior Offensive Lineman

Jordan McCray played an integral role on the “champion” Orlando Apollos offense. His work at center was the glue that held a solid offensive line together and contributed to one of the best run games in the league. McCray, 26 years old, still has a lot of years left to contribute and is versatile enough to play center or guard for an NFL squad.

Best fit –  Minnesota Vikings.
Many mock drafts have the Vikings looking for offensive line help, and for good reason. The Vikings need help on their line and could continue to bring in lots of bodies for training camp battles. Taking a flier on McCray would only add to their options.

Garrett Gilbert – Quarterback

If the AAF made it through their entire season, Garrett Gilbert would have been named their MVP. The former Rams sixth-round pick in 2014 played lights-out football for the Apollos. He was quick to diagnose plays, knew when to take shots downfield, and was accurate with his passes. Gilbert has a leadership pedigree and could find a spot as a decent backup or QB3 in the NFL.

Best Fit – Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks depth chart behind franchise quarterback Russell Wilson doesn’t look particularly strong. Paxton Lynch is on the roster, but he doesn’t inspire confidence since the Broncos chose to let him walk after picking him in the first round. Gilbert can come in and be, at a minimum, someone who can push Lynch in the battle for the backup role.

D’Ernest Johnson – Halfback

D’Ernest Johnson was one of two strong backs on the Apollos roster, and his running mate De’veon Smith also could get a look in the NFL since he’s only 24 years old. Johnson had a higher yards-per-carry (5.8 to Smith’s 4.6) and was proven to be a weapon in the receiving game as well. He had 22 catches on 30 targets for the Apollos.

Best Fit – Green Bay Packers
The Packers are not in need of a number one back for the first time in a few years with the emergence of 2017 fifth round pick Aaron Jones. The addition of Johnson could give Aaron Rodgers another weapon who could take swing routes and make something of them in space. Plus you can never have too many backs in training camp.

Birmingham Iron

Jamar Summers – Cornerback

The Birmingham Iron were bolstered by their defense, and Jamar Summers was one of their stars. In eight games, Summers had 10 pass breakups and three interceptions. He established himself, alongside Keith Reaser, as one of the top two corners in the East. The former UConn Huskie showed a great burst in breaking on routes and a willingness to tackle.

Best Fit – Cleveland Browns
The Cleveland Browns are favored to win the AFC North based on their offseason moves, but cornerback continues to be a question mark on the depth chart beyond 2018 first round pick Denzel Ward. The Browns lack a first round pick this year, so may need to get creative to find competition at the position. At only 23 years old, Summers has lots of years for growth and could contribute as a depth corner with the potential to move on up.

Beniquez Brown – Linebacker

The second-leading tackler in the Alliance, Beniquez Brown could bring a ton of energy to a linebacking corps. Brown totaled 46 tackles, three sacks, and four pass breakups in his eight week season. He hasn’t been on an NFL roster since signing in 2016 with the Green Bay Packers as an undrafted free agent but is still only 25 years old. He could contribute as a special teamer or a stack linebacker in the NFL after his showing in the Alliance.

Best Fit – Pittsburgh Steelers
Chalk this fit up to “feel” more than need necessarily. The Steelers have been trying to beef up their inside linebackers since they, unfortunately, are without Ryan Shazier still. Former first-round pick Mark Barron could be the answer after they signed him from the Rams, but Brown could be a valuable piece as well. His energy and tenacity make him look the part of a Steeler already.

Jeremy Faulk – Defensive Lineman

Big bodied Jeremy Faulk played well on the defensive line for the strong Birmingham Iron defense. Listed at 6’2” and 285 pounds, the former community college standout Faulk showed deceptive burst and active hands. He tallied three sacks for the Iron and 29 total tackles. NFL defenses are always looking for rotational pieces, and Faulk could become part of a rotation as an interior rusher or at defensive end.

Best Fit – New England Patriots
Faulk has some markers of a Bill Belichick find: obscure background, small school, and a likelihood to be a contributor. He could become a rush-down defensive tackle for the Pats. The defending champs defensive line has lost Trey Flowers and Danny Shelton, so there are reps to go around. Faulk could be someone who will snatch those reps up.

Memphis Express

Corey Vereen – Defensive End/Edge Rusher

Corey Vereen was one of the bright spots in a tough season for the Memphis Express. Vereen had a hand in one of the Express’ pair of wins. He was responsible for two sacks and two forced fumbles in their week four win against the San Diego Fleet. The first forced fumble led to a Memphis touchdown and the second sealed the win for them in the fourth quarter. Vereen showed a good ability to win edge rushes against Alliance tackles. He should be given the shot to try against a higher level of competition.

Best Fit – Carolina Panthers
The Carolina Panthers need some more edge defenders in a bad way. With the retirement of Julius Peppers, Carolina signed Bruce Irvin to a one year deal. Irvin and Mario Addison could be a fine pair, but there’s always a need to have more weapons coming off the edge. Vereen is only 23 years old, and the former Tennessee Volunteer could provide an option should Irvin not work out or Addison slow down in his ninth season.

Drew Jackson – Linebacker

Western Kentucky product Drew Jackson was a standout at strong-side linebacker for the Express. He ranked top five in tackles in the Alliance and stood out in pass coverage. A linebacker of Jackson’s size (6’1”, 250) who has shown the ability to be responsive in zone coverage or to take tight ends in man coverage would be an asset to a squad. Jackson has played in the NFL before after being a sixth-round pick in 2014 for the Colts.

Best Fit – Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals need for an infusion of talent at linebacker is very clear. Their starting outside linebackers before the NFL draft is Nick Vigil (2017 3rd rounder) and Jordan Evans (2017 6th rounder). Cincinnati is likely to pick up a linebacker in the draft, but they’ll need more than just a few to give the linebacking corps a new look. Jackson’s coverage skills and experience could give him a leg up on undrafted free agents if he gets an invitation to camp.

Atlanta Legends

Tyson Graham Jr. – Safety

A product of the University of South Dakota, Graham Jr. made a big impact playing for the lowly Atlanta Legends. Graham Jr. finished in the top five in total tackles with 37, and also forced two turnovers. He’s made it to two NFL camps before with the Atlanta Falcons and Indianapolis Colts but was cut after camp both times. Graham Jr. showed coverage and tackling ability in his eight-game AAF stint, and should get a look at the NFL once more.

Best Fit – Chicago Bears
Graham Jr. has been garnering interest already, reportedly meeting with the Steelers on the first day AAF players were allowed to talk with NFL squads. The Bears would be an interesting fit for Graham Jr. as well. Chicago replaced departing Adrian Amos with Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix but still could use more depth behind him and Eddie Jackson. Graham Jr. has a style of play that could endear himself to head coach Matt Nagy and to Bears die-hards as well.

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