Written by Matthew Slinn
Images by Axel Raven/Hubba Kimbrel
The Talent Factories of the SFL
Glancing Into the Near Past
The SFLm was devised 4 seasons ago to accommodate new players to the SFL and to ensure that interest could be maintained within the league during the SFL off-season. The expected outcomes of this ‘Minor League‘ was a greater player retention, especially amongst rookies who eagerly awaited a shot in the pros. Little did we know that the SFLm would become rich with so much talent that the players who emerged from each team would shape the SFL into what it is today. Sceptics of the ‘Minors‘ were a rarity when it first kicked off a couple of years ago, but I can’t imagine that number being higher than zero now. The young players getting drafted onto pro teams increase in ability as each season passes, and I fully expect the S18 Draft to be no exception to this rule. For now, we will take a look back over the talent that has emerged from the first three seasons of the SFLm and assess each individual’s impact on the league whilst fighting for victory on the field. I have chosen five players from each SFLm franchise – a task that proved to be a darn sight tougher than I rather naively thought it would be.
The Annapolis Navigators have always been heavy-hitters whenever they compete in the SFLm, especially on the offensive side. It may surprise you then to know that 3 of the 5 players below are on the defensive side of the ball. Read on to find out who they are.
NOTE: It is important to know that I have not counted players who did not play in Season 17 of the SFL. Whilst a few retirees had excellent seasons in 15 or 16, I would personally like to honor those who are still prepared to take the hits on the field.
#5) Benny Butcher – Defensive Tackle, D.C Dragons (Season 16 Draft)
Oh boy did Benny Butcher find his strength this past season. Part of this process is looking at a player’s entire body of work, but also weighing up how impactful they are in the here and now. Butcher is one of those that is peaking just as this article is being written. Butcher’s singular season in Annapolis and his rookie season with the Dragons saw a young defensive tackle trying to find his feet. He recorded 2.5 sacks and 6 TFLs in the SFLm, following suit in D.C. with 2.5 sacks and 6 TFLs once again. The numbers don’t exactly jump off the screen, although it must be noted that Butcher secure a fumble recovery during this time. Season 17 came along and B-squared must have had a great training camp. The 307lb sophomore finished the season with 10 sacks, one of only a few SFL players to reach double-digits in that category. Butcher also recorded 16 TFLs, a huge career high. Butcher’s ascension will be absolutely key to the Dragons as they try and find footing within the North Division.
#4) Jay Mart – Outside Linebacker, Lone Star Glory (Season 16 Draft)
As an outside linebacker who has always had an eye for the ball, Jay Mart has played well in the SFL, for both the Jacksonville Kings and the Lone Star Glory. It may seem slightly concerning that Mart left the Kings after only one season, but it wasn’t down to his performance on the field – Jacksonville were going through a whole culture rebuild and Mart wasn’t part of the new plans. His 82 tackles, 13 TFLs, 5 PDs and a pick as a rookie would suggest that Mart is a young player any team would want. Alas, Jay had to move elsewhere, and Lone Star came calling. For the Glory, Mart has played more off the ball, in coverage, although his performances haven’t dropped at all. In fact, I’d argue he has gotten even better. Mart recorded well over 100 tackles for the Glory, 4 of them for a loss whilst also being a menace against the pass. 10 PDs and a pair of interceptions show that the sophomore is one of the more capable linebackers in the SFL when dropping back. He even has a pick 6 to his name, something which I cannot boast myself. The 2 season vet is returning once more to LSG for S18. The Glory know not to let a solid player go when they have one.
#3) Sean Crooked – Offensive Tackle, Arizona Scorpions (Season 15 Draft)
How does a tackle like Sean Crooked justify his position so high on this list? It’s fairly simple really. Since he entered the league in Season 15, Ashley Jackson has been one of the least sacked quarterbacks in the SFL. Crooked’s partnership at tackle with EJ DeCue has largely kept Jackson safe from harm. The 4th year player has been excellent against opposition pass rushers – hard to imagine then that he is arguably better at run blocking. DJ Moses has had some ups and downs recently, but you can rarely fault the blocking laid down by Crooked, which helped the running back to nearly 5 yards per carry in Season 17. Jackson’s numbers look even prettier – over a two season span between S16 and S17, she was only brought down 34 times. Putting that into context – Season 15 saw her get sacked 32 times alone. The improvement of Sean Crooked has coincided with the improvement of the offensive line and the playoff appearances for the Scorpions. ‘It starts in the trenches’ has never been a truer statement.
#2) Scott Johnson – Running back, Las Vegas Fury (Season 15 Draft)
Speaking of players whom have helped their team breach the playoffs recently, we come to running back, Scott Johnson of the Las Vegas Fury. Johnson is the epitome of a ‘rags to riches’ storyline. #22’s debut season in the SFL was very tough. After breaking records in Annapolis, Johnson looked somewhat like a small fish in a big pond in his rookie SFL season. A couple of games that threatened to be ‘break outs’ never quite materialised into consistent good play. Johnson finished Season 15 with just over 600 yards, 6 totals TDs and Vegas missing the playoffs. Season 16 and 17 though, saw Johnson force his way into the conversation as a Top 10 running back in the SFL. Johnson’s breakaway speed and agility saw him reach 1,000 yards twice in a row, whilst scoring a total of 23 TDs over S16 and S17. Guess what? Vegas made the playoffs both seasons. Fumbles have started to creep into Johnson’s game recently and the Season 17 playoffs weren’t kind, but the former Annapolis breakout star has found his place in the SFL as a running back bordering on elite status.
#1) Jeff Gagne – Inside Linebacker, London Knights (Season 15 Draft)
Now we come to possibly the only player on this list who has been performing at what I would call an ‘elite’ level. Jeff Gagne has established himself as one of the best linebackers in the SFL, with numbers that rival the greats like Aquantis Shyne and Jack Brown. Gagne plays in a very similar way to Jay Mart – seemingly more comfortable in coverage than most linebackers – the difference is that the London Knights player has been doing it that little bit better. After a great season with Annapolis in the SFLm, Gagne struggled a little to make an impact in his rookie campaign, making plenty of tackles but only securing 2 TFLs, 6 PDs and a pick. Much like Johnson, seasons 16 and particularly 17 saw Gagne’s production take off, especially when the ball is in the air. Over that span of two seasons, the Knights’ linebacker made 188 tackles, 12 for a loss and (most impressively) he deflected 26 passes, excluding 3 picks and a forced fumble and recovery. The London Knights made he playoffs for the first time in their history last season, and the return of Gagne to the ILB position will give much confidence that they can repeat that feat. Gagne is an elite coverage linebacker who can also hit. He fully deserves to be at the top of this list.
Next we will head to Boise to look at the Mud Dogs. Back in the SFLm this season, Boise only produced one draft class so far. Still, the Top 5 is a very capable group.