The Alliance of American Football is off and running, and the NFL is watching.
The new league—which debuted Saturday with two games followed by two more Sunday—hasn't shied away from its intended purpose.
"Our objective is to take some of those people who can't quite make it and make them into quality NFL players," co-founder and Pro Football Hall of Fame general manager Bill Polian said in August, per ESPN.com's Jeremy Fowler.
Polian outright stated on the AAF's initial pregame show that the new organization hopes to build a relationship with the NFL and reach a point when current practice squad players are included on Alliance rosters.
The AAF has been built to bridge the void between college football and the NFL.
Eight teams (the Arizona Hotshots, Atlanta Legends, Birmingham Iron, Memphis Express, Orlando Apollos, Salt Lake Stallions, San Antonio Commanders and San Diego Fleet) are comprised of 52 players each, ranging from former high-round NFL draft picks to those who've never experienced the game at its highest level.
The AAF is a developmental league. The games should be viewed through that lens with an emphasis on young, promising talent, not those who've already had multiple NFL opportunities. Ten standouts—each 26 or younger—should already be in line for a "call-up" based on their potential and early performances.
"There's always a diamond in the rough or two," an anonymous NFL talent evaluator told USA Today's Mike Jones. "If a guy shines, we'll find him. This should definitely be a good thing."
10. WR Greg Ward Jr., San Antonio Commanders
Greg Ward Jr.'s transition from collegiate quarterback to professional wide receiver is going well.
Ward was one of college football's most exciting players as a three-year starter for the Houston Cougars. The dual-threat quarterback amassed 11,080 total yards and 93 total touchdowns in 49 games played. But a small frame (5'11" and 186 pounds) and nominal arm talent forced him to make a position switch.
He started his professional career as an undrafted free agent with the Philadelphia Eagles while trying to learn a new position. Ward spent the 2017 campaign on the Eagles practice squad but was released before the '18 regular season.
As a member of the San Antonio Commanders, Ward made the most impressive catch of opening weekend. One reception doesn't mean Ward has arrived, but the skill set involved in the play showed his growth. The 23-year-old tracked the ball over his shoulder, displayed late burst to separate and extended to make the catch away from his body.
Furthermore, Ward's efficiency trumped other targets. He tied for the league lead with five receptions on seven targets. Drops were a problem during the AAF's first weekend of play, but Ward, the Commanders' second option after 6'4" Mekale McCay, produced.
Ward is a multipurpose threat as a receiver, returner and emergency quarterback.
"I was really pleased when we got Greg, and as I learned more about him, I was even more pleased," Commanders head coach Mike Riley said, per Cole Thompson of the Alliance's official site. "He's a terrific athlete who can do a lot of things."
9. DE Karter Schult, Salt Lake Stallions
The NFL isn't fair. It isn't the ultimate meritocracy as it's often portrayed either. Small-school prospects have a harder time making a roster since they don't carry the same weight as a high draft pick or player from a pipeline program.
"I'm very surprised [to not be in the NFL]," Salt Lake Stallions defensive end Karter Schult told the Gazette's Cole Bair last fall. "As time went on, I was less surprised because I know now [that] it's very business-like. All the shine of the outside doesn't necessarily translate once you get into the business of it. ... I think being a year older, wiser, with more experience definitely works into my favor now."
Sometimes an individual plays well enough that he can't be ignored.
Schult earned the 2016 Buck Buchanan Award as the FCS level's top defensive player. The defensive lineman left the Northern Iowa Panthers program as its all-time leader with 56 career tackles for loss and 20 quarterback hurries (to go along with his 35.5 sacks).
The 6'3", 259-pound defensive end isn't as lean, long and explosive as NFL franchises prefer in their edge-rushers, but a difference can be seen in his every-down effort.
Schult provides quality reps in every situation. He sets the edge on early downs and makes plays in the backfield. He's also a fundamentally sound pass-rusher with a nonstop motor. He graded as the third-best rookie 4-3 defensive end during the 2017 NFL preseason, according to Pro Football Focus. He registered four tackles and a sack Sunday against the Arizona Hotshots.
"[The AAF is] exactly what I think football has needed," Schult said, per KCRG's Mike O'Brien. "It doesn't compete with the NFL, but it's an opportunity to try and get back to the NFL."
8. DT Trenton Thompson, Arizona Hotshots
Trenton Thompson's career arc has been surprising. The defensive lineman went from being the nation's No. 1 overall recruit in 2015 to undrafted in 2018, released by the Cleveland Browns and now playing for the Arizona Hotshots.
Thompson never lived up to his billing like other elite recruits, but his natural talent hasn't disappeared.
"God puts you in places that you have to overcome," the defensive lineman said prior to his final season with the Georgia Bulldogs, per the Athens Banner-Herald's Marc Weiszer. "I've got to look forward. I can't keep looking behind. ... It's a new Trent."
The new Trent may have finally arrived after a couple of less-than-stellar seasons because of injuries. Anyone would be hard-pressed to find a more gifted lineman in the Alliance.
The 6'4", 294-pound interior defender is powerful with the potential to dominate at the point of attack. He's always been an above-average to outstanding run defender. However, the NFL wants more from its defensive tackles, requiring its interior defenders to collapse the pocket and rush the passer. Thompson flashed potential in these areas.
According to Pro Football Focus, Thompson recorded two pressures Sunday in his 15 pass-rush snaps.
If Thompson continues to control the line of scrimmage and realize his potential, earlier missteps will be forgotten, and he'll get a legitimate chance to compete for an NFL roster spot.
7. C J.C. Hassenauer, Birmingham Iron
The Alliance's biggest problem—literally and figuratively—will be identifying and developing quality offensive line talent. The first weekend of play showed how little talent exists up front as defenses tended to dominate.
The Birmingham Iron, led by center J.C. Hassenauer, featured the league's most impressive front five. Birmingham created a lot of push, particularly along the interior, and played physically throughout the contest even though there were some breakdowns. The group—which features four former Alabama Crimson Tide starters—clearly improved as the game progressed.
Hassenauer graded as the league's best offensive lineman and didn't allow a quarterback pressure during the opening weekend, according to Pro Football Focus.
The 24-year-old lineman is intriguing because he only started three games for Alabama. He should see steady improvement with extra reps. Plus, he has experience at guard.
The 6'3", 305-pound blocker spent half of the 2018 campaign on the Atlanta Falcons practice squad. Before that, he served as the glue for a talented offensive line that helped win a national championship. Hassenauer knows how to play at a high level.
The more he plays, the more NFL teams will see he belongs. The search for quality big men never stops.
6. WR Jalin Marshall, Orlando Apollos
The Orlando Apollos' Jalin Marshall is the correct answer to a future trivia question as the first person to score a touchdown in Alliance of American Football history.
Marshall once looked to have a promising NFL career. The versatile wide receiver signed with the New York Jets as an undrafted free agent in 2016. He caught 14 passes for 162 yards and two touchdowns as a rookie and doubled as the team's kick and punt returner.
A four-game suspension for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing substances derailed Marshall's career. The Jets released Marshall upon reinstatement and signed him to the practice squad before cutting him again six months later. He didn't receive an NFL opportunity during the 2018 campaign.
Now, the Orlando Apollos are using the 23-year-old as an offensive weapon.
Marshall converted from quarterback to wide receiver after committing to Ohio State as a 5-star recruit. His transition was a slow process, but he still decided to declare early for the NFL draft.
The wide receiver completed an impressive touchdown catch between two defenders and threw for another score with the "Orlando Special" in his debut.
5. CB Jamar Summers, Birmingham Iron
Sticky cornerbacks with ball skills are always en vogue.
The Birmingham Iron's Jamar Summers didn't receive much of a chance to make the Pittsburgh Steelers roster last season after signing as an undrafted free agent. The skills that led to 12 career interceptions and 33 defended passes during Summers' time with the Connecticut Huskies certainly showed up during his first AAF effort.
Summers was around the ball all afternoon against the Memphis Express. According to Pro Football Focus, the 5'11", 190-pound defensive back earned the week's highest coverage grade—which included an interception on a tipped pass and two pass breakups.
The collegiate starter at cornerback and safety showed a fluid backpedal, hip turn and drive. He was at this best when in zone coverage with the ball in front of him. Summers is a good athlete, and his pro-day performance in the vertical jump, broad jump and three-cone would have placed him the top 10 cornerbacks at the 2018 NFL combine.
But the ability to make a play on passes will separate Summers from other corners. NFL secondary coaches and defensive coordinators want defensive backs who do more than cover. Turnovers are more important than ever thanks to aggressive offenses that rely on chunk plays. Quick changes are necessary when defenses surrender so many yards.
Instinctive defenders with natural coverage skills, like Summers, won't last long in the Alliance. The NFL is quick to lock up those options.
4. LB Shaan Washington, San Antonio Commanders
San Antonio Commanders linebacker Shaan Washington made everyone take notice of the new league with a bone-rattling, helmet-flying hit on San Diego Fleet quarterback Mike Bercovici that will play on every AAF highlight reel from now until the end of time.
"I had no idea he lost the ball because of the hit," Washington said, per Cole Thompson of the Alliance's official site. "When I popped up, I had no idea what really happened. I wanted to get that ball and give it to our offense."
The moment served as a wake-up call. The Alliance wasn't just going to produce solid football; players would make a name for themselves.
Washington became the first to experience the benefits of a league's debut in the social media era, but he also showed he's more than a one-hit wonder.
What Washington did before the sack probably went unnoticed. The strong-side linebacker rerouted the tight end before pursuing the quarterback. Washington helped take away an option before he pinned his ears back and pursued the oblivious Bercovici.
He didn't stop there. Washington added another sack and showed he's the type of edge defender best suited for a 3-4 scheme or sub-package usage. The 6'2", 239-pounder was consistently disruptive in the Commanders' first contest.
After going undrafted in 2017, Washington never had a chance to play for the Minnesota Vikings, as he was placed on the PUP list and eventually released. Now, the player who led the 2016 Texas A&M Aggies with 104 total tackles has re-emerged.
3. DE Damontre Moore, San Diego Fleet
An NFL organization will find room for a defender if he can rush the passer. In fact, five already did for defensive end Damontre Moore before his path led to the AAF and the San Diego Fleet.
The New York Giants selected Moore in the third round of the 2013 NFL draft. The man nicknamed "Damonster" managed 10 career sacks, including 5.5 in his second campaign. However, a locker-room incident resulted in Moore's dismissal from the Giants, and he never found footing on another roster.
Prior to being drafted, Moore was considered a top prospect with 26.5 collegiate sacks. But he had a terrible combine performance that showed a lack of twitch coupled with character concerns.
Even so, the Giants were willing to take a risk, and Moore busted.
He is only 26 years old despite being drafted six years ago. With his career on the line, he's once again showing the kind of edge dominance that nearly made him a first- or second-round pick.
According to Pro Football Focus, Moore posted an eye-popping nine quarterback pressures in his first AAF action. That's an impressive number regardless of the level of competition.
The 2012 consensus All-American has always been considered a natural pass-rusher. He displays good bend and technique. Questions arose about work ethic and maturity.
The Alliance is a chance for Moore to put it all together and show he's willing to make the effort. If he does those things, he should be rewarded with another opportunity.
2. QB John Wolford, Arizona Hotshots
Undersized quarterbacks aren't just accepted today; they're flourishing.
The NFL is willing to overlook physical shortcomings thanks to wide-open passing games and rules to protect the quarterback at all costs. The Cleveland Browns selected Baker Mayfied with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NFL draft even though he's under 6'1". His successor at Oklahoma, Kyler Murray, is listed at 5'10", and he's expected to be a high first-round pick in April.
Since the paradigm has shifted, doors will open for Arizona Hotshots quarterback John Wolford. As a senior at Wake Forest, the second-team All-ACC performer set school records with a 158 quarterback ranking, 3,192 passing yards, 29 passing touchdowns, 3,875 total yards of offense and 39 total touchdowns.
Wolford measured just under 6'0" at Wake Forest's pro day, though. Despite his overall progression in a Power Five conference, the undrafted quarterback lasted seven days with the New York Jets before being released.
He's found a new home in the desert as the AAF's most impressive player through the first week of play. After winning the job from the team's initial draft pick, Trevor Knight, Wolford threw a league-high four touchdowns and 275 yards in his first appearance.
But production is only part of the equation. NFL scouts will see a quarterback who works equally well inside and outside the pocket. Wolford consistently delivered the ball in rhythm. When the Hotshots' blocking broke down, the signal-caller's mobility allowed him to extend plays as a passer or runner.
"That guy—he's just obsessed with football so much," former Wake Forest teammate Ryan Anderson said, per the Winston-Salem Journal's Conor O'Neill.
As well as Wolford played, another quarterback fits the mold with a little more juice to top this list.
1. QB Luis Perez, Birmingham Iron
The development of two position groups is at the forefront of the AAF's mission.
"We're not developing quarterbacks as we should. We're not developing offensive linemen as we should," Bill Polian said, per The Dan Patrick Show's Andrew Perloff.
Quarterbacks dominate everything, of course. The search to find quality signal-callers never stops since the NFL fails to field 32 competent starters every year, let alone 64 viable options.
Sometimes scouts must turn over a few stones to find someone who can play the position despite an unorthodox upbringing in the game.
Meet the Birmingham Iron's Luis Perez.
Perez never played varsity football in high school but earned the starting quarterback job in junior college. He then moved on to Division II Texas A&M-Commerce, where he won a national championship and the 2017 Harlon Hill Trophy as the best player in Division II. That season, he completed 70.6 percent of his passes for 5,001 yards and 46 touchdowns.
The Los Angeles Rams signed Perez as an undrafted free agent in 2018 before releasing him in September.
"I always wanted to be a quarterback. I had a vision of playing in the NFL, and I knew I could do it," Perez said in 2017, per ESPN.com's Eric Gomez.
As the Iron's starter, Perez looked sharp. The 6'3", 222-pound quarterback made multiple big-time throws with precision and velocity despite erratic play from Birmingham's receivers.
According to ESPN's Chris Mortensen, NFL personnel are abuzz about Perez's potential and maturity. CBS Sports' Ben Kercheval reported as many eight teams have already contacted the Iron about their quarterback.