With the announcement that the Billings Outlaws will be moving to the Arena Football League for the 2024 season, that brought with it several changes that could affect the roster we saw in 2023 across the board. With the introduction of ironman football where players are required to play both ways, it creates a unique, and often times difficult situation when it comes to building a roster.
As players begin to make their way through college, most if not all players are forced to focus on one side of the ball despite most premier athletes often playing both ways in high school. Guys like Travis Hunter might be all the rage right now but that doesn’t mean they are in abundance. This means that most players haven’t been asked to play the opposing side of the ball in real game situations for years before reaching the professional level. Some players are able to make this transition back to playing both ways look easy, often times others, simply can’t make the transition at all and are forced to be named specialists, OR simply wind up in another league.
With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility
With a new league came new roster flexibility, new rules, and a new contract structure. Some side effects included increased pay, and the introduction of a practice squad. Allowed to carry 24 players (3 on the practice squad) just short of the 25 the CIF allowed.
That number coupled with the return of ironman rules, should provide significant roster flexibility going forward. How teams will use their practice squad remains to be seen, and I personally wonder if injured reserve will be another facet of this league in 2024 and beyond.
With this in mind I wanted to take a moment and look at some players from both the Billings Outlaws and Gillette Mustangs 2023 rosters and see if any of these players would make sense to call up to the “next level” that is the AFL. Let’s look at the 2023 roster from Billings first.
Names to Watch for the Outlaws in 2024
You can’t have a list like this without one man’s name residing at the top of it. I don’t care if you’re an Outlaws fan or not there is one player who commands respect no matter where he lines up and he showed this at three different positions last season for the Outlaws. That of course is none other than the man they call D2.
D’Nerius Antoine LB/S/FB
Last season Antoine was one of few players across the CIF as a league who played both sides of the ball. Antoine is simply a next level athlete who would likely dominate no matter where you lined him up on a football field outside of offensive line. The 6’1 230 pound defensive player of the year did nearly as much damage on offense as he did on defense.
Scoring eleven offensive touchdowns (including playoff totals) on just 45 touches. Scoring 10 rushing touchdowns on 42 carries, and adding 1 touchdown on 3 receptions. On defense he managed 82 tackles, 13 tackles for a loss, 3.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 3 tipped passes, 2 interceptions and 3 QB hits, scoring another touchdown on defense. Just for fun he decided to get in 4 kick returns for 25 yards as well.
Keep in mind last season, he led the team in tackles, and tied for the team lead in touchdowns from any non-quarterback on the roster with Josh Best. If Antoine doesn’t return to Billings, I would be willing to bet it wasn’t for a lack of effort on the part of the Outlaws who know his value better than any other team out there. However they would be foolish to believe there won’t be stiff competition for his services.
Jamario “Just Call Me Slash” Benson, Athlete
The term athlete doesn’t truly encompass the way Benson approaches the game. Last season he entered the year as the number two quarterback, seeing some snaps at wide receiver as well. Later in the year we saw him play running back, special teams, and even defensive back.
He would finish the season completing 39 of 66 attempts for 341 yards 8 touchdowns, 3 interceptions. He rushed 37 times for 163 yards and 4 touchdowns, second most rushing yards on the team. He caught 11 passes for 69 yards, and added 11 tackles and 1 pass break up. If this stat line doesn’t show you his versatility already, consider that Benson said he would likely take up rushing the passer next. (somehow I wouldn’t doubt his ability to do so)
Billings would be smart to retain Benson. On the smaller active rosters we reported here at Shady Sports Network, expected to have 21 players on them, Benson’s value sky rockets compared to other leagues. Given his ability to play all three phases of the game, and add depth at quarterback he truly could be one of the most valuable pieces to any team in the AFL or for that matter any league that plays ironman football. Most importantly Benson is popular amongst teammates and fans, and a very coachable player who simply loves the game.
Coach Walker got to see just how versatile Benson was against his Mustangs in 2023 when Rio played quarterback and receiver in route to 70 yards of total offense. He had 29 through the air, 31 on the ground, and 10 as a receiver in their first meeting. Later in the season, Benson played a large part in the offense once again as he threw for 27 yards, a touchdown, and ran for 21 yards, and 1 touchdown in route to a 41-38 victory over the Mustangs.
Damian Francis, Defensive Back/Wide Receiever
Damian Francis is actually D2’s brother. Both men are of course unbelievable athletes. Francis in college put on display next level versatility much like Antoine did. He ultimately saw time at cornerback, safety, and even outside linebacker. However when asked, Francis said he could play wide receiver on offense as well. At 6’2 205 pounds he could be a threat on offense around the end-zone in jump ball situations.
In 2023 during his rookie season he managed to lead the team in interceptions and pass break ups as well. He finished the season with 37 tackles, tied for second on the team, 3 interceptions, 3 pass break ups, he also forced a fumble, and scored a defensive touchdown as well. He has not played wide out as a professional, and his experience dates back to high school. However his ability to be a solid defensive back, and play special teams could provide enough value that a team takes a chance on him figuring it out at wide receiver.
Jude Sampson, Defensive Line/Offensive Line/Tight End
Last season Sampson was listed as an offensive lineman but seemed to do most of his damage on defense. In limited playing time on defense he certainly made an impact. He collected 14 tackles, 2 for a loss, and 1 sack. Coming out of Anna Maria college he had been listed as an offensive and defensive lineman at times. Before Anna Maria, he already stood 6’4 270 out of high school, and was benching 315 pounds. He began his career at left tackle but ultimately made the move to defensive line after his freshman season.
Ironically despite being listed as an offensive lineman with Billings he seems better suited to playing defensive end/tight end in the AFL at 6’4 270 pounds. Having just completed his rookie season could we see him return to Billings this time in more of a dual role, helping out on offense as an extra blocker in the run game in 2024?
Mason Lee, Athlete
Mason Lee is a player to watch but didn’t get much play last season with the Outlaws. Lee is primarily a wide receiver but at 6’2 195 pounds, having spent the majority of his career also playing special teams, he is no stranger to making tackles when needed. Perhaps this is a player that could be looked at to play defensive back and wideout while returning kicks in 2024.
While the majority of the damage he did to opposing teams in college was done as a receiver, it’s his ability as a return man that could get him on an AFL roster with a shot at playing defensive back at times as well. As a senior in high school he managed 27 yards per punt return on 9 attempts, and over 20 yards per kick return with 13 attempts. He didn’t return kicks in college, but he also was expected to be a key contributor on offense.
During college he caught 124 passes for 1,916 yards and 14 touchdowns, adding 7 carries for -4 yards. He also had 2 tackles. With Billings he had more tackles than receptions collecting two tackles, and 1 reception for 6 yards. Could Lee be a player to watch for on the Taxi Squad early as he learns the ins and outs of playing defensive back for the AFL?
Gillette Mustangs Players to Watch for Interest from Outlaws
It’s no secret that Cedric Walker, and Reggie Gray both had a hand in building the roster that went on to set records on offense for the Mustangs in 2023. It stands to reason that they would look back to players they know well to fill out their roster for the 2024 season, their first in the AFL.
Ka’Ronce Higgins, Wide Receiver/Kicker/Defensive Back
Ka’Ronce Higgins won the offensive player of the year award, and rightfully so after an impressive performance with several multiple touchdown games. He finished the season with 36 receptions for 624 yards and 14 touchdowns through the air, adding 5 carries for 13 yards and 1 touchdown on the ground.
On defense he played some defensive back as well. He collected 10 tackles and 1 forced fumble during the regular season. He managed another 10 kick returns for 148 yards. He added another 2 receptions for 28 yards and 2 touchdowns, 1 carry for -1 yards, and 1 tackle in the playoffs.
Also serving as the kick off specialist as the Mustangs often did not employ a true kicker. After the CIF season ended he signed with the Tulsa Oilers of the IFL, and added 5 receptions for 65 yards and 1 touchdown as well as 5 tackles in two appearances. Higgins offers versatility, and top end talent. He should be a top target for several teams.
Jaylen Jefferson, RB/WR/KR/DB
Jaylen Jefferson isn’t a two-way player so far in his professional career, but he put up a performance well worth a specialist spot on someone’s offense. It should be Reggie Gray’s unit. Jefferson managed an unbelievable season as a runner, receiver, and return man for the Mustangs in 2023.
Carrying the ball 68 times for 350 yards and 11 touchdowns converting five 2 point conversion attempts, he added 15 receptions for 233 yards and 4 more touchdowns. He had 11 kick returns for 117 yards. During the playoffs he at times was the entire offense.
He would collect 23 carries, leading the team, 9 receptions second on the team, and 4 kick returns second on the team. Only the quarterback Aaron Aiken touched the ball more than Jefferson during their playoff run. He came away with a total of 36 touches for 307 yards and 3 touchdowns.
While in college Jefferson played some defensive back as a freshman collecting 3 tackles, 1 pass deflection, and 1 fumble recovery. After that he didn’t play defense again but managed 4 tackles, and 2 blocked kicks on special teams. He also had 2 punt returns for 39 yards, and 45 kick returns for 1,372 yards and 3 touchdowns. At very worst you add this man to your team and have him be nothing more than a last resort at defensive back, while he shreds opposing defenses, and special teams units.
Raphael Turner, DL/FB/OL/TE/LS
There are versatile players, and then there is Raphael Turner. He makes versatile players look like they are limited. Despite an odd body type for football (5’9 250 pounds). He considers himself a fullback, and defensive lineman, but he can also play offensive line, long snap, and line up on every special teams unit as well. Turner is as versatile as they come.
He may not be the best at any one position he plays, but his value skyrockets due to how much he can do on a football field. Whether it’s offense, defense, or special teams Turner is the definition of an ironman player who can lineup all over the field, and plug into many roles allowing other players to come off the field to get a rest. Even if he is strictly used as a depth piece he would end up playing so much he would get starter level snaps because he can essentially be a back-up at as many as 7 positions. He is a must have for any team building for ironman rules.
Arthur Anderson, WR/RB/QB/DB/KR
Arthur Anderson did a bit of everything for the Mustangs in 2023. He was the third wide receiver in 2023 catching 21 passes for 261 yards and 4 touchdowns. He also managed to convert every point after attempt he was targeted on scoring two 2-point conversions, and one each of 3-point and 4-point conversions.
As a runner he managed the third most carries on the team with 15 for 35 yards and 4 more touchdowns. He also was forced into the game at quarterback at one point. He went 3 of 4 for 21 yards, and failed to convert a 2-point attempt. He also added 5 kick returns, for 95 yards, and 5 tackles.
His 5 tackles playing spot duty on defense, will not necessarily impress anyone, but with Anderson his value isn’t truly seen until you consider everything this man can do. For him to play literally every skill position on offense in 2023, while also seeing time in the return game, and on defense it seems to me he was being tested for 2024. Perhaps Coach Walker had an idea ironman ball might be in his future as a coach and he wanted to start building a roster long before he was truly tasked with it by ownership.
Arthur Anderson to me, is a must have player on any small roster due to the amount of things he can do when needed. He totaled 412 all purpose yards, and 5 tackles in 2023.
Garrett Pemelton, DE/FB/TE
Garrett Pemelton is an interesting player, best known for his ability to rush the passer, and make big time plays behind the opponents line of scrimmage. However if you dig deep enough you will find while he played at Adams State he was listed as Defensive End/Offensive Line at 6’2 230 pounds. Now no college coach would be crazy enough to expect Pemelton to hold up as a fulltime offensive lineman but…as a lead blocker, or lined up as a tight end?
Ironically at the high school level, Pemelton was playing as an offensive lineman at times despite being severely undersized. He was also a high school wrestler which would lend itself to playing offensive line, and blocking. Now if I am looking at him as a two-way player at this point in his career, it’s likely as depth for the fullback position. Granted I likely want someone with a lot more experience in that role as the starter, similar to D2, having Pemelton as a back-up certainly would help keep the starter fresh even if he is only taking a few series a game.
Magic Eight Ball Says
When I look at the future of this team, and start asking Magic Eight Ball m, its clear that not all of these players can or will be signed. Some may wind up in this new league with their old coach or team, but only time will tell.
Obviously this exorcise wasn’t to try and predict every player that the Outlaws will sign for the 2024 season, it was simply looking at the players who could be signed based on what they were able to do in the 2023 season whether already in Billings, or under Coach Walker with the Mustangs. These are players that the members of this front office and coaching staff know well and so far to my knowledge none have signed 2024 contracts elsewhere yet.
Coach Walker has already made it clear they are looking for younger players who still have their eyes set on making it to the NFL long-term. Many of these players are still early in their careers and looking to get back outdoors long term. Several were also dominant in their roles another thing coach will value at this level where there is expected to be a higher level of talent than what many of these guys faced in the CIF.
We want to hear who you think Billings should retain moving forward, and which new faces they should consider.
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