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Written by ‘The Inside Man’, Images by J.R Lawless

The Third Edition of our Season Previews sees the Inside Man up in the air with the ‘High Flyers’ of the SFL. Now, this isn’t necessarily referring to the best records, more the mascots that represent the teams. Yes, it’s cliche thinking, but the next five teams populate the avian portion of the league. We’ll start with the Las Vegas Fury (yes, that is my current team) and we’ll end on the Sioux Falls Sparrows. Let’s go flying high…

Las Vegas Fury

Steering the Ship

Owners/HC/DC: Jon Bond/Tony Benefield
General Manager: Matthew Slinn
Director of Communications: Otis Boudreaux
Digital Content Manager: Frank Wade
Scout: Scott Johnson

The Schedule

As seems to be the case most seasons in Vegas, the schedule is a bit of a killer. The Fury enters Season 15 with the prospect of slogging through the 5th toughest schedule in the SFL, which will make life difficult in their pursuit to go better than Season 14’s 6-6 record. The beauty of this schedule is that it is bookended by games against Denver: yes, ‘Vice Wars’ is happening twice this season. For those who have been living under a rock or are brand new to the SFL, this is one of the premier rivalries in the league, and with owners Jon Bond and Jeremy Vega returning to coaching this season, it will be more hotly contested than ever. I’m sure the Fury team would tell you they expect to go 2-0 vs the Nightwings, however, realistically they should be happy to split the series. Denver is better than last season’s 5-7 record and expect them to come out all guns blazing in Week 1. A pair of home games against Carolina and newly-formed Portland should prove to be entirely winnable, which is necessary heading into a rough 3-game road schedule. Vegas travel to Sioux Falls, Tulsa and Queen City in what could prove to be one of the hardest road trips for any team this season. Add this to the late-season trips to Mexico City and the defending champions, and you begin to see how important the Fury’s home games will be if they want to make the playoffs.

Vegas can take heart from the fact that their home schedule is tough, but not impossible. The previously mentioned tilts versus Carolina and Portland are crucial, as is the mid-season clash with St. Louis. Chicago and Denver also come to town down the stretch and securing victories against typically strong teams like these two will go a long way to proving Vegas’ playoff credentials. If the Fury can show up at home an snatch a couple of road victories, they make it in; if not, a tough road lies ahead.

Game to Watch: The Double Header against Denver (Weeks 1 and 11)

The Locker Room

A lot was made of the players Las Vegas lost this off-season, but not much was said about those who stayed, and equally as important, what they have gained. As free agency hit, it appeared like mass exodus – punctuated by the departures of Robert Redford, Freddy Tramel and the retirement of Memphis Blue. If you look more closely at the spine and strength of the Vegas team, they may not be as heavily affected as many think. Retaining the services of All-Star, Rhett Sawyer, was huge for the defence, as well as keeping highly-touted young free safety, Nicky Colontrelle. Then, you add a perennial elite linebacker in Slinn Shady and this defence starts to look scary. Max Jackson, the Ramen siblings and Merrick Itera are also back in the secondary, bringing a wealth of experience that few teams possess. The defensive line has seen somewhat of an overhaul, with Sawyer now getting much-needed help from rookies Tank Hutt and A.K Jones, who some have labelled as their ‘Steal of the Draft’. No matter how you look at it, this defence should continue its legacy as one of the best in the league.

The attacking side of the ball is where inexperience and questions now lie for this squad. Vegas’ offence was distinctly middle-of-the-road under Stephen Mullenax last season, and owner Jon Bond is taking the reigns with a new-look group. What was once a conservative, run-heavy offense may need to shift to a more aggressive passing one. Veteran quarterback, Tom Ramen returns to steer the ship once again, backed up by fellow seasoned campaigners, Mason Kirby and John Blades, who has moved to receiver from tight end. Having a long-range hitter like Kirby and a big body in Blades on the outside should provide Ramen with some excellent targets when other avenues are closed off. Rookie Scott Johnson takes the lead at the halfback position, although I expect him to be used more sparingly in the opening weeks as he develops his skills and understanding – nobody can expect him to be Robert Redford 2.0 just yet. Vegas are one of the teams not carrying any star offensive line players, although they have invested in fullback and tight end as well as, rather interestingly, gone with 4 star wide receivers. The jury is out on the offense, so it will be interesting to see how they gel together during the season.

Player to Watch: Mason Kirby, Wide Receiver              Best Draft Pick: Garrison Blue, Tight End

Final Assessment

Despite the tough schedule and questions surrounding offensive production, Las Vegas look as strong as they ever have done. The coaching tandem of Jon Bond and Tony Benefield could be poised to become one of the best in the league and a well thought out draft seems to have gone a long way to securing the longevity of this squad. The defense will, once again, be bordering on elite and I can see the Fury riding that to take some unexpected victories. Come playoff time, they will be there or thereabouts.

Predicted Record – (6-6 – 7-5)

During Week 1, the Fury travelled to Denver and were soundly defeated in the Vice Wars rivalry, 40-20.

Carolina Skyhawks

Steering the Ship

Owners: Harish Prasad and James Cline
General Manager/DOC: Rachelle Colston
Head Coach and Offensive Coordinator: Harish Prasad
DC: Sully Richardson
Asst. HC: Heath McDaniel
Head Consultant: Sir Chappell
Scout: Chad Nevels

The Schedule

If I was Carolina, I’d be very happy with this schedule. You might say “Why would you be happy opening the season with three very tough games?”. Well, if you look at the schedule in its entirety,  and not as a 3-week microcosm, you would see that the Skyhawks have it much easier down the stretch and could be poised to make a late-season surge towards the playoffs, especially with the off-season improvements they have made. Granted, opening Season 15 on the road against Charleston and the Las Vegas Fury, only to return home to face the always excellent Baltimore Vultures is daunting, but if Carolina can make it to 1-2 by Week 4, they have a great chance of riding the rest of the season at least at .500. Whether I think they will achieve this is another matter, but the schedule could certainly allow it.

Mid-season home games versus Portland, Denver, Chicago and Arizona more than counter-balance tough away trips to the Jacksonville Pride and Vancouver Legion; yes, Denver, in particular, will present a tough challenge, however home-field advantage is always home-field advantage. A potentially pivotal Week 10 game against Houston (another team I see fighting for a Wildcard spot) is my go-to match on the slate, and I love the fact that we are seeing the ‘Eggplant‘ rivalry play out in both teams’ venues.

Game to Watch: Week 10 @ HOU

The Locker Room

Retainment and recruitment in Carolina has been stellar this off-season – largely down to the active locker room and the work of General Manager, Rachelle Colston. The dynamic offensive trio of Sully Richardson, Logan Jack and Harish Prasad all return, boasting three-figure contracts, making them the spearheads of the Skyhawks’ attacking play. Solid campaigners Shea Carroll and Heath McDaniel Jr. join Prasad in the receiving corps, balancing out Richardson’s options and offering experienced heads to help Sam Avolis develop as the #4 wide-out. It will also be interesting to see if McDaniel Jr. can recapture his form from Season 9, where he made over 1000 yards. The aforementioned Logan Jack is known as one of the best receiving backs in the league, which could mean Sully Richardson has his best season since being drafted. Tight End Jack Flash gives a larger option to Richardson and he will hope to improve on his rookie season.

On the defensive side of the ball, Carolina will want to at least maintain the level of performance they displayed last season, and with what should be a better linebacking corps and the return of Sir Chappel as a defensive consultant, that should be the case. The front 7 still looks strong, with veterans Chris Colon and Phill Hall manning the middle of the defensive line, backed up by a strong trio of linebackers. Forrest Stark and Shravan Prasad are joined by 6-Season veteran Levant Irvine, and the wily ‘backer seems to be getting better with age and experience. Yes, there are holes at the defensive end which some teams may look to exploit, but the Skyhawks will hope their top-level OLB play will render that inconsequential. In the secondary, Carolina managed to retain is key pieces, whilst adding rookies Mark Martin and Chad Nevels to the mix at cornerback and free safety respectively. This pass defence will lean heavily on the shoulders of Rachelle Colston, Trystan Hatley and arguably the best cornerback in the league, Zane Doty. I expect the defence in Carolina to provide even more of a stern test this season.

Player to Watch: Rachelle Colston, Free Safety           Best Draft Pick: Chad Nevels, Free Safety

Final Assessment

Expect improvement in Carolina this season. I’m not calling that it will shoot them into the SFL stratosphere, but they should definitely be scraping around for a Wildcard spot come the business end of the season. The defence should stay as sturdy as it was in Season 14, and the offence should see a marked improvement as the season progresses. The main question in Carolina is whether they will be able to put it all together and make a playoff run, because the roster is usually good and the pieces are there. Well, this season, I see them making .500 and potentially shocking a couple of teams in the playoffs.

Predicted Record – (5-7 – 6-6)

Carolina went to Charleston and caused a major upset in Week 1, coming away with the victory.

Baltimore Vultures

Steering the Ship

Co-Owner/Head Coach: Tim Johnston
Co-Owner: Dr. Thomas Paterniti
General Manager: Chad Roland
Vice President: Troy Gaines
Asst. Head Coach: Jack Wigmore

The Schedule

I opened up the Vultures’ schedule expecting it to be HARD. So, you can imagine my surprise when seeing that, on paper, it’s the 14th toughest in the league. I felt like I might as well save some time and not bother writing this paragraph, but in the interest of investigation and yearning need to voice my opinion, I pressed on. Happily, I discovered that Baltimore’s S15 maybe a little spicier than I originally thought. I mean, let’s be real – we’re talking about Baltimore here. They could have the toughest schedule by a long way and you would still expect them to at least reach 7-5. As it happens, there are a few ‘slip-up’ games that will provide a real test for Tim Johnson’s team. Obviously, out of the gate, they have the toughest game of them all – on the road against the defending champs. It doesn’t really get hotter than that. And their road schedule is a sneakily tricky one. Games against St. Louis and Carolina are exceedingly winnable (despite the Skyhawks making vast improvements this off-season) but travelling to Mexico City is always very tough, and the trip to Louisiana could be an absolute barn-burner of a game.

At home, I predict Baltimore will win out – yes, even against the Sioux Falls Sparrows. Early season games against Denver, Vancouver and a Charleston team I believe to have regressed I would put the Vultures as firm favourites for. Don’t get me wrong, they will present a stiff challenge, especially Denver, but if the Vultures don’t go 3-0 here, I’ll be surprised. Couple that with games they should win against Houston and London, the Vultures will be in good shape for a high playoff seeding heading into the playoffs. Sioux Falls will provide the hardest home challenge, and a Week 12 game against Arizona should be tricky, especially if Eddie Gauge has mastered offense like he has defence.

Game to Watch: Week 10 vs SXF

The Locker Room

As is becoming hugely predictable amongst the SFL community, Baltimore’s roster looks strong – very strong. The majority of big-hitting pieces stayed on offence, and the defence took a huge upgrade with one of my signings of the off-season, Troy Loshaw. For those newer to the league who don’t know much about the strong safety, go and look him up. A few seasons ago, Loshaw was the prototype playmaking safety. He played with unmatched poise, bravery and his athleticism was off the charts. A few years down the road, I don’t expect Troy to regain that magic immediately, but Loshaw at 80% is still an elite safety in this league. On the other side of the ball, I expect 2nd-year wideout Ivory Irvin to make a huge advancement this season. He has a good, if unspectacular, debut season but I can see him becoming one of the SFL’s premier receivers soon, riding the back of that huge 111 value contract. Irvin is backed up by big-bodied Mac Chima and the experienced Daley Holder, as well as a pair of good tight ends, giving Mike Dazzo a lot of toys to play with in Season 15. T-roy Gaines returns as the prototypical workhorse back, and you can bank your house on him gaining over 1000 yards yet again this season.

Other than the dynamite Loshaw, Baltimore have some nice pieces on defence. Giovanni Bolt is always a stud back there at free safety, and the old head of Joe Dazzo should go a long way to developing the game of rookie linebacker, Nolan Pierce. Fellow rookie, Ben Stackenpaper, picked in the first round of the draft, joins Marvin Hymes at corner, with Chris Dodd rounding out what is probably the weakest point on this Vultures roster. A 4-star defensive line rounds out the front 7, with big-bodied Tucker Lewis gaining the meatiest contract of the bunch. He will hopefully use that to improve on his 7.5 sacks from Season 14. Chad Roland also lines up at defensive end, bringing much-needed experience to an otherwise young group. Shark Tarkington at kicker will be reliable as he always is.

Player to Watch: Ivory Irvin, Wide Receiver              Best Draft Pick: Nolan Pierce, Linebacker

Final Assessment

The Vultures have a tricky but not tough schedule, a very good roster build and elite level coaching. They will make the playoffs this season, I can guarantee you that. The real question for Baltimore is whether they will make it to the championship game and win it all – something many feel they should have achieved already. Personally, I’m not sure if they will. The playoffs are a different beast and nobody really can predict who will end up coming out on top. One thing I do know – expect at least 9 wins to go the Vultures’ way.

Predicted Record: (9-7 – 11-1)

The Vultures went 0-1 after Week 1, losing a thriller, 32-35 in Atlanta.

Denver Nightwings

Steering the Ship

Owner – Jeremy Vega
General Manager – Kramer Jackman
Head Coach – Jeremy Vega

The Schedule

Denver’s schedule this season seems to run in a pattern. Clusters of back-to-back games against the big hitters of last season are separated by runs that the team would probably describe as ‘winnable’. Obviously the big stand out on the schedule is the ‘Vice Wars’ rivalry, returning for not one, but two battles this season. As we covered that pretty extensively in the Las Vegas preview above, which I presume you have read, I want to take some time to look over the rest of the schedule in more detail.

The first thing that is noticeable to me is that Denver has one of the more balanced home/road slates in the league. Both the home schedule and road schedule are looking equally as tough. In their home stadium, the Nightwings will open their account against Las Vegas, before the S14 champions come to town in what will be a real test of Jeremy Vega’s coaching. Must-win games against Arizona and London punctuate the middle of the season with a crunch time match against the Corsairs kicking off the final stretch. The Season 15 regular season also finishes at home, with a game against the Desperados, which will be harder than it looks. Away from home, things don’t get any easier, but nor do they get trickier. Heading to Portland in Week 2 could be a blessing as the Fleet try and get their numerous rookies to gel on the field. Matches against Charleston and Carolina in the midst of Weeks’ 7 and 8 will be ideal ways to steal a road victory, Travelling to Chicago and Las Vegas late in the season could be massive for the playoff push, and don’t count Denver out against Baltimore – it could be a slip up game for the Vultures.

Game to Watch: The Double Header vs LVF

The Locker Room

Most around the league probably think of three names when they think of Denver: Josh Miller, Jarod McChesney and Kramer Jackman. Judging on the makeup of the roster this season, they will be the big hitters of this team once again. The quarterback and running back both enter the season boasting large contracts of 100+ value, with Miller being the highest paid signal-caller in the league coming out of the gate. It seems clear the intention is to run the offense on the back of McChesney, and why not? The man is consistently putting up big numbers and has been one of the best rushers in the league for years. Jackman also has been paid well as we will likely continue his battle with Kole Varner for kicking supremacy in the SFL. At receiver, the Nightwings return deep ball threat Jockamo Jones, big-bodied pass catcher Logan Keel and young slot man, Bryce Battle. We all know what Keel and Jones can do, so the key to Denver making improvements on offense could be the play of battle in the slot. Jeremy Moseley gives a solid tight end option for Miller and the offensive line was beefed up during the draft, which should help keep Miller safe against the likes of Rhett Sawyer from Vegas.

Defensively, for me, it’s all about Josh Vasquez back there at safety, and the introduction of exciting new cornerback, Rosca Santigria. As one of the highest paid and highest performing free safeties in the SFL, Vasquez needs to carry this defense; he needs to lead by example. The 6’1 playmaker had a breakout season last time out, picking the QB off 11 times with a further 11 pass deflections. Denver will need that kind of production again as younger pieces like Santigria and Michael Rochester get acclimated to the speed of the big leagues. Echo Love, Adam Wiseman and Barry Barkley also return, offering experience and solid defensive play that will be crucial in helping Denver to a playoff berth. One question I have is the defensive line, and whether to combination of Dez Troyer and rookie, Rochester, will be enough to rush opposing quarterbacks effectively. I guess only time will tell.

Player to Watch: Jarrod McChesney, Running Back       Best Draft Pick: Rosca Santigria, Cornerback

Final Assessment

he biggest difference for the Nightwings between Seasons 14 and 15, is the reintegration of owner Jeremy Vega into the coaching structure. Vega is a proven championship winner, and his reintroduction can only prove to be a huge positive for Denver. The roster is solid, especially on offence, and they have possibly the best kicker in the league who can keep the pints ticking over. The real question will be whether the defence can carry the team if Miller and McChesney are having a bad day. I expect Denver to be a tough game for each team on their schedule this season, and i think they will be sniffing around the playoffs the whole season long.

Predicted Record: (5-7 – 7-5)

As previously mentioned, Denver won ‘Vice Wars’ 40-20, in a great display of home dominance.

Sioux Falls Sparrows

Steering the Ship

Owner/O-Coordinator/Webmaster/Social Media: Jason Tyree

GM: Jose Fuentes

GM/D-Coordinator: AJ Levye

The Schedule

Much like Atlanta and Baltimore, I feel like Sioux Falls’ schedule doesn’t really have much bearing in whether they will be successful this season – if the Sparrows falter, it will be their own doing. Having said that, according to metrics, they will play through the 2nd toughest slate of games in the league, so it’s not like this season is gonna be a cakewalk. Week 1 sees a confidence building game in the form of a trip to Portland, which couldn’t really be a better draw, considering the trials and tribulations that Week 1 brings. This is not a knock on Portland, but they are a rookie team with a lot of rookie players and it would be unfair to expect them to have gelled together enough to challenge Sioux Falls at this point. The Sparrows are going to need that confidence boost to play out perfectly however, as they host Atlanta in Week 2, and I don’t need to explain how huge of a game that one is. A tricky trip to Charleston follows before a slip-up game against a newly-tooled Las Vegas team hits in Week 4. The middle of the schedule is where things should becoming slightly more plain sailing for the Sparrows. A trip to Fort Worth this early in the season should yield a victory, and home games against Tulsa and Lone Star will see the Sparrows as heavy favourites. Again, this isn’t a knock against these particular squads – the Sparrows are just THAT good.

A hellish three-game stretch then follows, Tyree’s squad travel to Queen City and Baltimore, bisected by a tricky home game against the highly powered Vancouver Legion offense. If the Sparrows can get a positive in the majority of those three games, they could be favourites to take it all this season. After such a tough run in, the season ends with what should be more comfortable tilts against the Scorpions and the Gladiators. Arizona may become a spoiler game though, if by Week 11 they have their offence firing as well as their defence looks.

Game to Watch: Week 10 @ BAL

The Locker Room

Retention, retention, retention. That appears to be the mantra for success in Sioux Falls, as it should be across the entire SFL. As far as I can tell, the Sparrows retained every player from their playoff run last season, whilst adding some nice pieces late in the draft. Game-manager QB Julian Tyree returns once again to break some records, having playmakers Gunner Lewis and AJ Warren to pass to on the outside. Expect these two pass catchers to have solid seasons once again, helping dynamic running back, Colin Hart, if he has a rare off day. Although, let’s face it, Colin Hart doesn’t have off days. I don’t need to say much about the Sparrows’ running back other than it’s obvious why he is the face of this offense. I actually expect his numbers to increase this season, as he gets the help of rookie offensive lineman, Dusty Wilson. Wilson was selected In the supplemental draft and is clearly passionate about the position. He could be the nucleus of that offensive line for seasons to come.

Defensively, Sioux Falls are always box office. I don’t envy any team that has to go up against this defence in any season, especially now they are reeling after losing gin the championship game. The defensive line is as solid as ever, now adding rookie Cam Frosby as another nuisance for offenses to deal with. Completing the front 7 is probably the best linebacking group in the SFL, Alex Parker, Nick Fargo and Jose Fuentes. Parker and Fargo have been an elite duo for years, and the more newly acclimated Fuentes has settled in perfectly. They make up a perfect blend of run stopping ability and dynamism in the pass game. Experience reigns once again in the secondary, with legend, AJ Levye the cornerstone of the wall. The underrated Jay Ringgold and John Barnhardt join Levye once again in the defensive back end, with rookie Nathan Barnett adding depth that will help down the stretch of the season. For yet another season, this defence looks nearly impenetrable.

Player to Watch: Colin Hart, Runningback            Best Draft Pick: Dusty Wilson, Offensive Line

Final Assessment

Yes, Sioux Falls has a tough schedule, but I think more than any other team in this league, they can handle it. Retention was perfect and the pieces they added in the draft only strengthened the team further, especially at offensive line. The defence will, once again, be elite as good retention is a proven road to success in this league and that defence will be tighter than ever. Tyree and AJ Levye return once again to coach the offence and defence respectively, and as long as this dominant duo stays together, the Sparrows have a shot. Expect a playoff berth and expect another great playoff run.

Predicted Record: (8-4 – 10-2)

The Sparrows did as expected in Week 1, putting away Portland in a handsome victory.

That concludes out third edition of the Season 15 previews. I know the season has kicked off, however I am determined to get these out ASAP. Despite his anonymousness, the ‘Inside Man’ has some good insight and has put a lot off work into these, so it’s only right I should share it with you, the SFL community. Next time, we’ll be looking at the ‘Up and Comers’ of the SFL.

 

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