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 Boise Mud Dogs played with a hard-nosed style that centred around defense and running back now receiver, Fox Highwind. Let’s take a look who made the Top 5 from this hard-working group.
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) Rosca Santigria – Cornerback, Denver Nightwings (Season 15 Draft)
When the Denver Nightwings selected Rosca Santigria in the Season 15 SFL draft, the man showed his infectious personality and passion for the team with a dance of elation, captured by a live look-in camera set up in the green room. The Nightwings’ ownership knew there and then that the Boise Mud Dogs cornerback would be a quality selection, and three seasons removed from that summer night, Rosca is still a solid piece of Denver’s secondary. Santigria has had to earn his dues in the SFL, spending his first two seasons lined up as a nickel corner behind more experienced campaigners. After Season 16 saw the retirement of a number of key Nightwings pieces, Santigria got his chance as an outside, a position he has kept for the upcoming Season 18 draft. Season 17 saw Rosca have arguably his best 6 months in the SFL to date, securing 12 pass deflections and 3 INTs, with just as many tackles for loss. He has averaged about 3 INTs per season since joining the SFL, but production in run defense was way up and he reached double-digits in PDs for the first time in S17. It feels like Rosca has been in this league forever – at the same time, he is just starting to get a chance to realise his potential. Our #5 on this list has some very exciting times ahead.
#4) Delaney Nash – Strong Safety, Fort Worth Toros (Season 15 Draft)
Another member of the Boise secondary that was taken in the Season 15 draft (albeit with a much later pick) was strong safety, Delaney Nash. Since that point, Nash has been ever-present for the Toros as they have yoyoed in form. #41 may not be the best safety in the SFL, he may not be the flashiest, but he is a very good player. Reliability is the name of the game when you take a look at the seasons Nash has spent in the SFL – believe me, that can go a long way for a franchise. Here is what you are pretty much guaranteed from the safety in a season: you are sure to get around 70 tackles, 4 interceptions and a decent chunk of return yards. If that is your floor, I’m happy to have you in my safety spot any season. A couple of areas that Nash drastically improved in his 3rd season was the number of balls he batted down (12 this time out, twice as many as S16) and TFLs – run defense was more of a priority. Fort Worth’s defense has always been their strength. It is one of the best in the league. Delaney Nash may not be able to claim that title, but he is a very durable cog in the wheel.
#3) Sammy Steele – Kicker, Atlanta Swarm (Season 15 Draft)
As we traverse through this list, it is noticeable that Boise produced a glut of very good, if not elite, players. Atlanta Swarm kicker, Sammy Steele, is another example of that. Steele doesn’t have the biggest leg in the SFL, he doesn’t hit the most field goals season upon season, but he is consistent and does his job well when called on – especially, I might add, in the playoffs. We’ll start with that. Steele is perfect in the playoffs, 5 for 5. That takes poise. During the regular season, ‘S-squared’ has missed the odd kick, but 3 misses from 69 attempts is hardly anything to scoff at. Statistics like that are what place Steele at #3 on this list. The Swarm returned to form in Season 17 after missing the playoffs the previous campaign. With the East division up for grabs again, Steele could well be honing that clutch gene once more, ready for another playoff run.
#2) Fox Highwind – Wide Receiver, London Knights (Season 15 Draft)
Fox Highwind has certainly had one of the more fascinating careers in the SFLm and SFL so far. Tipped to be taken as the #1 running back in the Season 15 draft, Highwind subverted all expectations by signing a deal with the London Knights to be a wide receiver. It isn’t that much of a stretch to see the transferable skills between the two positions, but it was still a risk for Highwind to take and it seems to have paid off. Fox is the first player on this list whom I would say has displayed real ‘star quality’, without ever being able to put it together on a consistent basis. Highwind’s rookie season with London is his statistical best, however the Knights’ aggressive style of offense is very different to Mexico City’s heavy use of running backs and tight ends (the Aztecs are where Fox has spent his last 2 seasons). The hybrid has made the playoffs with Mexico City in both of his seasons there, however he has not been able to replicate the 963 yard, 9 TD season he had for the Knights. Highwind has flown back across the Atlantic to London for Season 18, likely hoping to rediscover the magic of playing in a high risk offence. Such is the talent over there, Fox lines up in the slot – I’m still expecting more of that ‘star quality’ to emerge in this, Fox’s fourth season in the SFL.
#1) Jean Benazzi – Offensive Guard/Defensive Tackle, Denver Nightwings (Season 15 Draft)
Topping our list, and in my opinion the best player to come out of Boise so far is offensive guard (now defensive tackle) Jean Benazzi. Now, it’s hard to really gauge the impact of an offensive lineman in the SFL by citing statistics, but I’m going to give it a try anyway. For this, I’m going to refer to the Denver Nightwings’ running game, something that undoubtedly helped them to a championship win in Season 16. So let’s remember that particular RB that Benazzi was blocking for during S15 and S16 – Jarrod McChesney. McChesney was a beast, we all know it, and it’s easy to say that his production was more down to his pure rushing ability than the O-Line blocking for him. But let’s look at the facts. Since Benazzi entered the SFL, McChesney rushed for 5.4 YPC and 5.8 YPC respectively. Before Benazzi was drafted? Season 14 saw the powerful back limited to a pedestrian 3.9 YPC. Shocking right?! If we look back at McChesney’s illustrious career, his YPC reads 3.7, 4.3 and 3.9 YPC – the only outlier being Season 12 when McChesney went off for 5.8 per carry, although bare in mind some RB’s hit over 6 and one over 7. Benazzi’s impact since taking up the position at guard for Denver has been game-changing and certainly under the radar to me. The big man even helped rookie RB Baylee O’Shaugnessy to 1,000 yards and over 5 yards per carry in his rookie season. Benazzi will spend Season 18 as a defensive tackle. I’m almost nervous to see what kind of destruction his sheer strength causes against opposition O-Lines.
Next we will hit one of the ‘big boys’ of the SFLm – Albuquerque. The Atoms have been a mainstay of the SFLm since it’s inception and produced three seasons worth of talent. It’s bound to be an elite list.