By The Man on the Inside

A week has passed since Free Agency opened and we’re deep into the long list of signings being announced by The Commissioner. A plethora of moves have been made and many a big name has switched allegiances to another franchise. Rosters are filling, builds are forming and the excitement is building. Season 12’s Free Agency is not disappointing. Let’s take a look at what’s happened ‘Around the SFL’ this week.

Pairing up linebackers continues to be popular

So far, 16 teams are running a defence containing two contracted linebackers, with that number likely to rise. Defensive line heavy squads seem to be on the decline, with a few teams swapping their defensive ends for an extra linebacker, or simply changing the position of adaptable edge rushers (one such example is Las Vegas signing former Tulsa defensive end, Abner St. John, hoping he can slim down a little whilst still bringing speed in the pass rush). So why are teams focusing so heavily on beefing up their second line of defence?

The obvious answer is the success of the running game in Season 11. The pure fact that Jaye Eniola (a RB) won the MVP crown illustrates how dominant they were last season, especially when compared with the efforts of Season 10. Even rushers who were previously seen as ‘middle of the road’, were taking over games, with defences primarily set up to stopping big passing plays. For Season 12, that all seems set to change, although there are a couple of running backs that are impossible to stop *cough*Ash Odom*cough*.

The second (and possibly more accurate) reason for this spike in linebacker-heavy builds, is simply put, the fact that there is an abundance of quality linebackers on the market and in the SFL in general. Just look at some of the partnerships that have emerged so far. Alex Parker and Nick Fargo return to Sioux Falls for S12, continuing one of the most reliable tandems in the league; the same could be said about Clint Hendershot and Dillon Rolland in Chicago. The Pharaohs have the rights to an exciting young group in Heath McDaniel II and Gerry Bertier, whilst Vancouver have paired veteran Frank Champion with one of the best coverage ‘backers in the SFL in Levant Irvine. Baltimore’s twosome of Aman Takess and Joe Dazzo could help take the Vultures back to the playoffs, although the most dangerous looking corps as of yet has to be over the pond in London. The Knights have re-signed arguably the best linebacker in the league in Slinn Shady, this season giving him a partner: Pro-bowler, Blake Craize. Craize brings elite quality to a group that already had it in abundance, and should only work to elevate the play of the London defence that struggled at times in Season 11. Just think about this. London’s linebackers count for 253 tackles, 24 TFL’s, 20 PD’s and 4 INT’s based on last season. Scary.

Vancouver look more ready than ever

I have to applaud Andy Hamilton and the Vancouver Legion. The moves that have been made to upgrade that roster this off-season have been top drawer. I’m not sure how much returning quarterback and GM Tom Pepper, had to do with the free agent acquisitions and re-signings, but either way, a fantastic job has been done so far.

Yes, the only rookie they retained was safety Markem Lopez (2nd round pick from last season’s draft) but that is more of a reflection on Season 11’s off-season than the present day. The Legion have set themselves up perfectly for the draft, only requiring one spot to be filled at strong safety, easily manageable for Hamilton and Pepper. Glancing over the Free Agent signings, the receiving duo of Mickey Martino and Chris Braun is a particular highlight, both players having reputations as active locker room presences and stalwarts on gameday. Add to the fact that they already have Brett Killian as the #1, Tom Pepper must be jumping for joy after having somewhat of an indifferent season in Indianapolis.

Defensively, the capture of Dante West from the Dallas Lobos is a nice signing, with West able to work the opposite side of the field to Pro Bowler, Maajor Key. Both cornerbacks have signed to solid contracts and should reap the rewards come the last knockings of the season. The most shrewd move the Vancouver staff have pulled off however, is the pick up of Levant Irvine from the Fury. Irvine perfectly compliments Frank Champion’s high work rate with his innate ability to drop back into coverage and defend the pass. Irvine has shown great instincts when the ball is in the air, and had a highly underrated season over in the desert.

This off-season could be the one that pushes Vancouver past that ‘.500’ mark. Hamilton and his staff should be very happy with the work they have put in so far.

If it ain’t broke…

One team that have shown no signs of activity during Free Agency – because they haven’t needed to – are the Chicago Wildcats. Chicago are actively retaining their entire roster from a season ago, building on increased cohesion towards the end of the schedule. Some may argue that it’s foolish of Chicago to not change things up slightly in a bid to improve, but I beg to differ, and here’s why.

The Wildcats finished Season 11 on fire, winning 6 in a row and making it to the SFL Quarterfinals, where they succumbed to a loss at the hands of a very good Houston Hyenas team. It’s not hard to see that the Wildcats want to keep that spark going into Season 12, and maintain the positive momentum that the franchise haven’t had since Season 9.

They also have a perfect blend of youth and experience. Old heads like Clint Hendershot and Maurice Spurgeon perfectly compliment newcomers like Jared Willis and JC Torres (both of whom have been rewarded with nice silver contracts). Adding a different piece or cutting a player and replacing him could result in the equilibrium of the team being disrupted, which has a knock-on effect to the rest of the squad.

When you have a settled team of players who are brining success after a season and a half of turmoil, you don’t change that formula, you keep it. Chicago are showing their loyalty and team cohesion by sticking together. This looks like a playoff team to me.

Tune in next week for more from ‘Around the SFL’.