After concluding their third week of practice, the San Diego Fleet is on the brink of playing their first ever official game.
With opening day just 13 days away and the deadline for all rosters to be set just four days away, the next two weeks for the Fleet are certainly going to be action-packed. That being said, certain players have started to carve out a role for themselves and the team is slowly starting to take shape.
Here are some takeaways from the team’s recent week of practice:
Fleet hire Mike DeBord as Offensive Coordinator
Under the guidance of head coach Mike Martz, the San Diego Fleet are expected to have one of the league’s best offenses. Martz was the offensive coordinator and then head coach of the “Greatest Show on Turf”, a unit that many NFL experts believe to be the greatest of all time. Martz is an offensive mastermind, and with him at the helm, it should be no surprise to anyone when the Fleet is amongst the best offenses in the AAF.
It is still unknown if Martz will call his own plays, or designate that duty to someone else, but the current assumption is that Martz should be in control of whichever plays are run. Even if this holds to be true, the offensive coordinator position should still be important to the team. We’ve seen several examples, especially in recent years, of an offensive coordinator still being involved in the makeup of an offense when the head coach calls the shots.
When Martz was hired as the Fleet’s first ever head coach, he brought along Jon Kitna to be his offensive coordinator. Kitna, a former NFL quarterback, did not last very long in this role. The former Dallas Cowboy was named the current team’s quarterbacks coach last week, leaving the Fleet with a gaping hole on their coaching staff.
Due to the fact that Mike Martz is expected to call his own plays, many believed that he would assume the role of offensive coordinator and head coach, or that he would just promote someone within the organization to the position. With the team’s first official game so close, bringing an outsider into the offense just doesn’t make a lot of sense. Just like most of the other coaches on this staff, however, Martz specifically brought someone in who he is familiar with.
Meet the team’s new offensive coordinator, Mike DeBord.
While this addition may be a bit surprising, it certainly wasn’t unpredictable. DeBord served as an assistant to Martz when he was the offensive coordinator for the Chicago Bears. He has also spent time in the college world with the University of Tennessee and the University of Indiana. Martz did what most expected him to do: he brought someone in who was familiar with his system and has a ton of football experience under his belt.
This hiring does not mean that Martz will hand over the play-calling duties to anyone. In fact, it almost guarantees that Martz himself will be in charge of what plays the Fleet run. Even though DeBord is familiar with the system, he has limited experience with the players on the team and does not know the personnel like Martz does. DeBord will serve as an extra set of eyes, however, and should be an important part in the team’s offense going forward.
We have a…trade?
This was probably the most shocking and surprising thing that happened to the Fleet all week.
When the AAF was first announced as a league, they left us fans with a lot of question marks surrounding a lot of things we traditionally see in the NFL. The biggest question mark of them all was if trades were going to be allowed around the league or not, as this is typically one of the more exciting off-the-field things we see in the NFL. Luckily, after making a trade this week, the Fleet gave us some clarity on this manner.
In what would eventually become the first trade in the Alliance of American Football league history, the San Diego Fleet traded tight end Darryl Richardson to the Memphis Express for running back Jahad Thomas.
Obviously, it is too early to say whether or not this trade was good for both sides. Strictly from the Fleet’s perspective, however, this move looks like a fairly good one.
It was highly unlikely that Darryl Richardson was going to break camp with the Fleet. Gavin Escobar and Marcus Baugh have formed a formidable tight end duo for the team and Richardson was stuck on the outside looking in. He is not a bad player by any means, but the Fleet just did not have a roster spot with his name on it. For them to get something for a player they were more than likely going to cut is a tremendous move by general manager Dave Boller.
As far as what they got for Richardson, Jahad Thomas is an interesting player that could potentially bring some value to the Fleet. A three-year starter at Temple, Thomas ran the ball 563 times for 2,599 yards and 30 touchdowns. He also caught 69 passes for 998 yards and eight touchdowns. Thomas exploded his junior season, where he ran the ball 276 times for 1,262 yards and 17 touchdowns. He was a staple on a successful Temple team that appeared in two bowl games while he was a part of the team.
Thomas would eventually go undrafted, but many scouts said he was very capable of being an NFL running back. He doesn’t have the height, 5’10”, or size, 189 pounds, to be a three-down back at the next level, but he does have the agility and lateral quickness to at least be productive. Thomas is a good pass catcher and has the skill set to be a solid pass catcher on obvious passing downs.
As far as how he stacks up against the current Fleet running backs, Thomas might have a decent shot at cracking the final roster. He might be the best pass catching back on this team, outside of Ja’Quon Gardner, and that alone could be good enough for him to make it past the final roster cuts. It is so important to have a reliable pass catcher out of the backfield nowadays, and Thomas provides this team with a dynamic that they currently do not have. This is certainly a situation to monitor going forward, but I would not be surprised if Jahad Thomas cracked the final 53 in four days.
The Emergence of LaQuvionte Gonzalez
You could easily make a case that LaQuvionte Gonzalez is the most underappreciated and under-the-radar player on this entire roster. When I did my initial wide receiver positional breakdowns, I didn’t think there was a chance that he would end up cracking the final roster. Honestly, most people probably agreed with me at that time.
Is he proving all of us wrong or what?
There’s no denying that Gonzalez had a ton of question marks going into training camp. For starters, he stands at a mere 5’10” and only weighs about 186 pounds, which is obviously not the ideal build for a wide receiver nowadays. Gonzalez also had some off-the-field issues, as he was dismissed by both Kansas University and Texas A&M University for misconduct. The arrow was certainly not pointing in the right direction for him.
Upon joining the Fleet, Gonzalez appears to have turned his back on these past issues and is moving forward.
After a relatively quiet start to training camp, “Speedy” absolutely exploded this week. He dominated 11-on-11 drills the entire week, making several impressive catches in the open field and around the goal line. On Friday afternoon, Gonzalez blew past defenders for a 50-yard touchdown at the start of team drills. He has proved that he can play on the boundary and in the slot, adding versatility to his game and making him more valuable. His athleticism and speed are on full display right now and Gonzalez is making the most out of it.
Gonzalez has not only quieted his doubters, but he has also impressed the coaching staff tremendously. His stock is high right now and he seems to be getting better each day. While there is still a chance that he does not make the final roster, LaQuvionte Gonzalez is certainly making a case as to why he should stick around.
The Tight End Tandem
Going into training camp, one of the more interesting things for me was how Mike Martz was going to utilize the tight end position in his offense. During his time with the Rams, Martz basically ignored the position in its entirety. Tight ends are not known for having a lot of statistical success under Martz, as they are primarily viewed as blockers and are not utilized as pass catchers.
History is not repeating itself in this situation and it looks like Martz is going to incorporate his tight ends more into his offense.
This might be because the tight end position as a whole has changed over the years, but the Fleet also have a talented crop of tight ends on their roster. Aaron Peck and Ben Johnson are both talented players. Peck is a converted wide receiver playing tight end and is still learning the ins and outs of the position. Johnson is very well-rounded in his own right, as he can be a weapon in the passing game and clear running lanes as a blocker.
While both of them are solid players, Gavin Escobar and Marcus Baugh have stolen the show for the Fleet.
Baugh is a monster of a human being in his own regard. He stands at 6’5″ and weighs in at about 250 pounds, giving him the prototypical build for the modern-day tight end. Baugh is a much better athlete than he appears to be, as he has good feet and good hands for someone as big as he is. The Ohio State product has solidified himself as a legitimate goal-line threat and should be utilized in that role during the season.
Escobar brings experience to a roster that desperately needs it. He played with the Cowboys and actually saw the playing field, catching 30 passes for 333 yards and eight touchdowns in his NFL career. Escobar is primarily a pass catcher, but he can hold his own on the line as well. Having a reliable tight end to throw to in short yardage situations or around the goal line is important for an offense, and Escobar will give Mike Bercovici a trusted target when he needs one.
Both of these players are virtual locks to make the final 53-man roster and I would not be surprised to see Martz implement sets that will include both of them. They are both well-rounded players that are going to have a positive impact on the Fleet in 2019.
Additions: OL Daniel Brunskill, RB Jahad Thomas
Subtractions: Darryl Richardson