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Browns’ Ties to New AAF Pro Football League

Ex-Browns GM Phil Savage part of startup group

Editor’s Note: Saturday evening, we posted a list of former Browns players taking part in the AAF. The league debuted to positive reviews Saturday night, even beating the national NBA game in TV ratings. Barry Shuck takes a deeper look at the former Browns’ ties to the AAF, including from a management perspective.

The Alliance of American Football, most commonly known as the AAF, opens their inaugural season this weekend.

This new developmental professional football league is comprised of eight teams in predominately southern locale cities. As has been experimented in the past, this entity is a spring format which of course has to play in several winter months.

There are several former Browns’ players, executives and coaches dotted amongst the rosters of the AAF.

Two prominent positions in the AAF once participated with Cleveland.

Cleveland Browns Sign Running Back Reuben Droughns
Browns GM Phil Savage
Photo by John Bashian/Getty Images

Phil Savage is the GM for the Arizona franchise. He began his professional career with the Browns as a defensive assistant in 1991 and eventually became a college scout. After being named the Director of College Scouting with the Baltimore Ravens, the Browns brought him back home in 2005 and became the GM for four seasons. Eventually he was named the Executive Director of the Senior Bowl from 2012-2018.

Joe Pendry is the GM for Birmingham. He was the Browns OC in 1985 and then the RB coach from 1986-1988. He has been the OC for eight NFL or college teams.

In addition, this league has four coaches once associated with the Browns along with 34 players.

Orlando Apollos

The Apollos, coached by Steve Spurrier, have on their roster two former Browns’ wide receivers: Rannell Hall and Charles Johnson, plus C Ronald Patrick.

Hall went undrafted in 2015 and signed on with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and eventually landed on their practice squad (PS). The Browns inked him and he had a good training camp only to break his fibula which landed him on IR. He was signed to a one-year deal and made the PS, but released late in the season.

Patrick made the Dallas Cowboys PS in 2014 but was cut. He then was signed to the Pittsburgh Steelers’ PS. The following season he made and was cut from four different teams’ PS, including Cleveland. He would later be signed and cut from three other clubs.

After selected in the seventh-round of the 2013 draft by the Green Bay Packers, Johnson made their PS. The Browns claimed him with his 4.38 speed and added him to their active roster, but four days later they discovered he had a torn ACL which sent him to the IR list. The Minnesota Vikings signed him the following season where he played three seasons with minimal results and constant injuries.

Memphis Express

The Express is coached by NFL legend Mike Singletary. There are three former Browns as coaches: LB coach is former Browns outstanding LB and Super Bowl champion (with Giants) Pepper Johnson, OL coach is Steve Marshall, and the QB coach is David Lee. Former Browns on the roster are RBs Terrence Magee and Rajion Neal, along with CB Channing Stribling.

Neal had been a PS member of four other NFL clubs when the Browns inked him along with FB Robert Hughes just prior to training camp in 2016. Neal had participated in the Browns’ minicamp for a tryout. He was a final day cut.

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Cleveland Browns
Channing Stribling
Scott R. Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

Undrafted out of Michigan, Stribling was signed to the Browns PS in 2017 and was subsequently cut six weeks later. He then made the PS of four other clubs.

Magee was another undrafted free-agent in 2015. He made the Baltimore Ravens active roster but then was cut when the franchise traded for CB Will Davis. The Ravens then made room on their PS. He was cut from seven NFL clubs and also made the PS with all of them, including twice with Cleveland.

Salt Lake Stallions

Dennis Erickson is the head coach of the Stallions. On his roster is former Browns QB Josh Woodrum, WR Jordan Leslie, DE Karter Schult, S Micah Hannemann and CB D.J. Smith.

Woodrum was signed to the Giants 2016 rookie training camp but was not signed. He then spent six seasons with other teams. On September 3, 2017 the Browns claimed him off waivers along with four other players and then cut him four days later along with DB Calvin Pryor.

Schult was in the Browns 2017 training camp and also participated in the Spring League.

The Browns signed Hannemann right after the draft in 2018 when he wasn’t drafted, but cut him right before training camp. He spent training camp with the Los Angeles Chargers but did not make the final cut.

Smith was a beast in college while at North Dakota State and was a last day cut of the Philadelphia Eagles in 2016. After making the PS, the Eagles brought him up to the active roster in Week 6 and played mainly on special teams the remainder of the season. The following year he made the Browns PS.

A standout track star, Leslie went undrafted in 2015 and made the PS of four NFL clubs before the Browns signed him to their own PS in 2016. He was activated to the active roster in September but was injured and then waived with an injury designation.

Birmingham Iron

With Tim Lewis at the helm, he has hired longtime defensive line coach Ray Hamilton. The franchise’s GM is none other than former QB coach Joe Pendry who was Cleveland’s OC in 1985 and the RB coach from 1986-1988. Former Browns include WR L’Damian Washington, RB Trent Richardson, OG Kitt O’Brien, DT Jeremy Faulk and P Colton Schmidt.

Also, every AAF has several NFL and CFL franchise affiliations, and the Browns are one of four NFL clubs associated with the Iron.

Washington has seen many rosters after going undrafted in 2014. He has been signed by six NFL teams and two CFL clubs, making the PS on several but not spending much time with any. He lasted on the Browns PS for one month.

The Giants invited O’Brien to their training camp in 2013 after going undrafted, but instead he signed a contract to play with the Cleveland Gladiators on the Arena League where he stayed for three seasons. From there he was signed to the Indianapolis Colts’ PS for two seasons. The Browns inked him for training camp 2017 and made it to the second-to-last cutdown day.

Detroit Lions v Cleveland Browns
Trent Richardson
Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

Taken with the third overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft after a stellar career at Alabama, Richardson had a very good rookie campaign with Cleveland with 950 yards on 267 carries and 11 TDs, plus 367 receiving yards and an additional two TDs. After two games into the 2013 season, the Browns traded him to the Colts where his career began to unwind. After two uneventful years in Indy, they waived him in March of 2015. He signed with the Oakland Raiders and the Ravens but was cut there also. He had limited success with Saskatchewan in the CFL for one year gaining 259 yards, a 5.4 yards per attempt average and two TDs.

San Diego Fleet

With pro football back in San Diego, they are coached by Mike Martz. Former Browns include CB Kendall James, TE Gavin Escobar and RB Terrell Watson.

Watson’s college numbers were impressive: 79 TDs, almost 6,000 rushing yards with a 4.51 40 time and 22 reps of 225 pounds at the combine to go along with his 6’2”, 240 pound frame. As a senior at Azusa Pacific, he rushed for 2,905 yards with 37 TDs. Despite being undrafted, the Cincinnati Bengals signed him to a three-year deal worth $1.58 million, but was cut and signed to the PS. He then signed with the Browns and competed for a roster spot against James Wilder, Rex Burkhead, BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Cedric Peerman and made the final 53-man roster. The next day he was cut and then signed to the PS. He spent time on five other NFL team’s PS.

James was a sixth-round pick of the Vikings in the 2014 draft and made their PS. Late in the year the Browns claimed him and finished the year on the active roster. In 2015, he made Cleveland’s PS.

After being named First-Team All Mountain West Conference two years in a row, Escobar was taken 47th overall by the Dallas Cowboys in the 2013 draft. For the next four seasons he appeared in every game but two for Dallas, but his statistics and playing time dwindled each year. His final tally was only 30 catches for the four-year span and the Cowboys passed on resigning him. Two other clubs signed and released him before the Browns inked him in 2018 to a reserve/futures contract, but was waived before training camp.

Atlanta Legends

Kevin Coyle is the head coach with Michael Vick installed as the OC. Former Browns S Ed Reynolds, OG Avery Gennesy and WR Bug Howard are roster members.

Cleveland Browns v Buffalo Bills
Ed Reynolds
Photo by Michael Adamucci/Getty Images

Reynolds was a fifth-round pick of the Eagles and spent two seasons there after being named First Team All-American in 2013. In September of 2016 the Eagles cut him and was claimed off waivers by the Browns who signed him to the PS. He became a roster member five weeks later but was later placed on IR. The following year Cleveland cut him.

Howard was signed to the Browns PS in 2017 after the Colts cut him on the final cutdown day.

Arizona Hotshots

Rick Neuheisel is the head coach. Former Browns GM Phil Savage is this club’s GM. Former players include S Rahim Moore, LB Scooby Wright, CB Darius Hillary, TE Connor Hamlett, DT Trenton Thompson, C Patrick Lewis and WR Richard Mullaney.

After one month on the Cincinnati Bengals PS, the Browns claimed Hillary in 2016 where he eventually made the active roster in November. On September 3, 2017 the Browns claimed QB Josh Woodrum off waivers along with four other players and then cut Hillary.

The Browns were Scooby Wright’s first shot at the NFL after being named the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year. He was taken in the seventh-round and inked a four-year $2.401 contract. In September, he was cut and then added to the PS. The Arizona Cardinals claimed him and was inserted into their special teams rotation. In 2017 he played in 10 games, was waived and then signed to the PS.

Hamlett had bounced around other team’s PS when the Browns claimed him for their PS in 2015. He was activated in October and in his very first NFL contest he caught a 17-yard TD from QB Charlie Whitehurst. Three weeks later he was waived to make room for LB Jamie Collins whom they had just gotten in a trade. Hamlett was then resigned to the PS.

Rahim Moore

Moore was projected as a highly-valued player by being named First Team All-Pac 10 and First Team All-American by Sporting News. He was taken by the Denver Broncos in the second-round of the 2011 draft where he played for four seasons. He then signed a three-year $12 million deal with the Houston Texans but was eventually benched and cut. Moore made Cleveland’s roster in 2016 was cut the day after final cutdowns. The Giants inked him to a reserve/futures deal but let him go before training camp.

Mullaney was signed and cut by two other NFL clubs before the Browns cut him on the final day in 2017.

The Liberty Bowl MVP in 2016, the 6’4”, 309 pound Thompson went undrafted in 2018 after being a five-star recruit out of high school. The Browns signed him immediately after the draft and was viewed as a diamond in the rough. Just before training camp the Browns cut him to make room for DB Christian Boutte.

Lewis was a last day cutdown of the Packers in 2013 to which the Browns put in a claim for him. He made the PS but was not signed for the following season.

San Antonio Commanders

Mike Riley is head coach. Former Browns include LB Tyrone Holmes, S Derron Smith, OG Fred Lauina and OT Andrew McDonald.

Smith was a sixth-rounder by the Bengals in 2015 where he appeared in 31 games over parts of three seasons. He was cut and then resigned to the PS. The Browns claimed him during the latter portion of the 2017 season and then appeared in seven games with four tackles. He was waived just before training camp the following season.

McDonald went undrafted in 2012 and was in four clubs training camp and made two PS appearances. In was claimed off waivers by the Browns in 2015 and was assigned to their PS only to be cut four weeks later.

Tyrone Holmes

The Jacksonville Jaguars selected Holmes in the sixth-round of the 2016 draft but cut him on the final cutdown day. The Browns claimed him off waivers where he made the PS and the active roster, but was cut late in the season.

New League, New Venture

This new league is comprised of eight teams with 50-man rosters with a 10-week season followed by a four-team playoff. Part of the planning process of this new league does not include becoming a developmental league or a farm system for the NFL, but at this time will not target existing NFL players. They insist that the term “semi-pro” will not pertain to their league.

The AAF is the brainchild of movie producer Charlie Ebersol and former NFL GM Bill Polian. So far the planning is to continue the game of professional football onward into the spring until the NFL season resumes play similar to what the USFL did from 1983-1985.

CBS Sports has signed on to broadcast games. Under the TV agreement, CBS will begin airing weekly games on February 9, 2019 with league games broadcast on CBS Sports Network along with the championship contest the weekend of April 26-28. At the same time a free app will be available to stream live games along with integrated fantasy football that will offer weekly prizes to fans. Since the AAF is not trying to become an NFL rival league but instead has hopes of developing talent, the NFL Network is also televising games.

League rules that differ from the NFL include the elimination of kickoffs and PATs, two replay challenges per game, 40-second play clock, 2 ½ hour game duration, two-point conversion attempts after every TD, player bonuses structured around victories, fan engagement and statistical achievements, the elimination of the three-point stance, and post-career education/planning for every player. Instead of the kickoff, each team will begin play from their own 25-yard line.

The AAF will also install a video referee called the “SkyJudge” who is able to make calls that the on-field officials missed. This league will place an official in the press box every game with the ability to assess plays that are deemed unsafe during each contest. This official will also have the authority to pick up markers thrown for both offensive and defensive pass interference, but only in the last five minutes of the game.

Overtime rules are different from the NFL also but similar to high school rules. Each team gets a possession from the 10-yard line with four downs, but unlike the high school level, no field goals are permitted. After each TD, it is mandatory to go for two points on the conversion.

One odd rule will be centered as the result of the elimination of the kickoff. By doing so, this also signifies the removal of the onside kick. To offset this standard football feature, if a team is trailing by 17 or more points or within five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, they will have the option to take possession of the ball on their own 28-yard line with a fourth down and 12. If a first down is achieved, the game continues on with the trailing team in control. If the attempt fails, the game will also resume with a change of possession.

Another odd rule is that the defense can only rush a maximum of five players at any time, and none of those players can begin the play from the secondary. Obviously this rule is to allow more scoring and for offensive lines who may not be ready for the NFL level to be able to play and focus on their blocking assignments - or possibly to protect each club’s QB.

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