The AAF prides itself as not just a development league for the NFL, but a safe haven of sorts for players of every background. The Alliance wants your undrafted, your injured, your journeymen, so it can finally help give them the reps they need to succeed at the highest level of the game.
Eventually, some of the players thriving in the AAF now will indeed go on to restart their careers in the NFL. For some, it could take a few years, but others could find themselves on a NFL roster, and even making an impact on Sundays, come next season. After taking in the first few weeks of the season and speaking to some people behind the scenes, here are five names that could be called on Sundays next fall. All of them have already been leaders on their respective teams and on the stat sheet.
Jamar Summers, CB, Birmingham Iron
On what is the AAF's best scoring defense, Summers is playing like a defensive MVP. Summers' story reflects what so many in the AAF have gone through: he was an unheralded recruit out of high school, undrafted out of UConn and cut by the Pittsburgh Steelers before the start of the 2018 season. Ironically, though, Summers is playing like a better option than what the Steelers have been dealing with for the past few years in their search for a lockdown corner.
With Summers, the Iron get a tough-nosed player who is proving to be coachable. He has excellent lock-down skills, but he's also a disruptive corner with his ball-hawking skills (2 INTs) and two forced fumbles. He ranks at or near the top of his relevant defensive categories. Rather than go through the NFL free-agent spin cycle, he chose to come to the AAF and he's proving a lot of teams wrong. With corners being in high demand for a pass-happy NFL, Summers will get a fair shake this time around.
Nick Rose, K, San Antonio Commanders
If the Cody Parkey saga with the Chicago Bears taught us anything, it's that you should never underestimate the importance of the kicking game. (Similarly: take note, Alabama.) Kicking has been -- no pun intended -- hit or miss so far, but Rose has been the most consistent by hitting all seven of his field goal attempts, including a 50-yarder against Orlando. Rose was undrafted out of Texas and spent the past three seasons bouncing around the NFL. Teams looking to upgrade their kicking situation could test the free-agent market or sign someone out of college in camp ... or it could go with the most consistent kicker in the AAF.
Rashad Ross, WR, Arizona Hotshots
You can probably guess the story by now with Ross: undrafted out of Arizona State and frequent visitor of multiple NFL teams without ever finding a situation that stuck. With the Hotshots, he's been a true deep ball threat who flashes good hands and explosiveness in yards after the catch.
In the AAF, Ross has been the second highest-graded receiver on the field, per Pro Football Focus, but you could argue that he's been the most consistent wideout. There are a number of wideouts who will likely get another shot at the NFL, including Apollos teammates Jalin Marshall and Charles Johnson. For Ross, NFL teams will see a wideout with a good skill set who is showing what he can do now that he finally is getting a fair shot.
Garrett Gilbert, QB, Orlando Apollos
One thing to remember about not just Gilbert, but a lot of these players, is that sometimes their AAF journeys aren't a result of a lack of talent as much as finding the right situation. You could argue Gilbert has been on that search for the past decade. He signed with Texas out of high school and one year in, the Longhorns inexplicably changed their offense to be more pro style -- which is not what Gilbert ran at Lake Travis High School, nor what he signed up for his freshman season. In the NFL, he bounced around with five teams, almost all of which had established starting quarterbacks.
With the Apollos, Gilbert finally has had an opportunity to shine under one of the best minds in the game, Steve Spurrier, and the results speak for themselves (he's No. 1 in our QB rankings). Giblert has a league-best 827 yards passing -- nearly 200 more than the No. 2 quarterback, Logan Woodside. And as he showed in a win over Memphis in Week 3, Gilbert is a capable runner as well. There are still areas he needs to work on, of course. HIs ball placement can be a bit erratic, and accuracy is so important. But he's shown some excellent arm strength, anticipation and touch down the field on deep throws. There aren't enough quality starting quarterbacks to go around in the NFL as it is. If Gilbert keeps up this type of season, an NFL team is going to give him a shot.
DeMarquis Gates, LB, Memphis Express
A bright spot in Memphis' tough start has been Gates, who quickly became the centerpiece of the Express' defense. Gates has 19 tackles on the season and has a real nose for the ball. Through three weeks he has two forced fumbles and a recovery. He's been everywhere, it seems, and has been both an effective tackler and defender in space. Gates was super productive in college at Ole Miss, leading the Rebels in tackles for three-straight years, but he wasn't able to make it with the Cleveland Browns. He's thrived under coach Mike Singletary, though, one of the best linebackers to ever play in the NFL. If Gates can stand out in Singletary's defense, maybe he'll get a longer look in the NFL in 2019.