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After League’s Abrupt End, AAF Castoffs Get Second Chance With Vikings

Written By Sam Ekstrom (ZoneCoverage.com)

Karter Schult planned to get married on April 6 and play a football game the next day.

Only one of those two events went as planned.

To give you a hint which one, Schult is currently missing his Italian honeymoon to get in extra reps at Minnesota Vikings rookie mini-camp while his wife and mother-in-law enjoy the trip instead. The wedding to his fiance Marissa in Sioux City, Iowa went off without a hitch, but days before, Schult found out he was unemployed.

The former Salt Lake Stallions pass-rusher from the Alliance of American Football lost his job, along with hundreds of other AAF players and staff members, when the league folded under apparent financial strain on April 2.

“We were in a defensive meeting,” Schult told Zone Coverage after a rookie mini-camp walkthrough. “All of us got an ESPN update, that’s how we found out because none of the coaches knew, nobody knew. We found out that way. We had like a team meeting 15 minutes later and they told us the news.”

Schult signed with the Vikings — along with four other AAF castoffs — within eight days of the league’s shuttering. The Northern Iowa grad was joined in Minnesota by Salt Lake teammate and linebacker Greer Martini, San Diego Fleet safety Jordan Martin and San Antonio Commanders safety Derron Smith and corner Duke Thomas. Over 40 AAF players latched on with NFL franchises following their league’s abrupt end, each with a dramatic tale to tell.

“It’s kind of like our own little fame story,” said Schult.

Financial records released after the league filed for bankruptcy revealed massive debt, despite chairman of the board Tom Dundon’s $250 million investment that was supposedly going to ensure the AAF’s survival.

Dundon was reportedly adamant that the NFL immediately align itself with the AAF and make the start-up an official league partner, but when those requests weren’t fulfilled the TopGolf mogul pulled the plug before the conclusion of the regular season. Speculation also exists that Dundon only bought into the league to secure rights to its sports gambling app technology — though his claim to those rights will be contested.

Martin, the San Diego safety, was also in attendance at Vikings rookie mini-camp this past week. He told Zone Coverage there was a strong belief amongst his AAF teammates that the league was going to survive and that Dundon was merely driving a hard negotiation.

“We didn’t think it was going to happen,” Martin said. “We all thought it was business tactics, he’s just trying to get new deals and stuff like that. We never thought it was going to end because we got such positive feedback from fans and the things of that sort, the media. Everybody seemed to like the league. We never thought it was going to end.”

Like many members of the AAF, Martin was looking for a fresh start in the brand new league after failing to land with an NFL team following the 2018 draft. The Toledo and Syracuse defensive back had attended rookie mini-camp with the New York Jets in 2018 but did not appear at any team’s training camp.

Schult comes in with slightly more seasoning, having spent time with the Cleveland Browns and Carolina Panthers during the 2017 and 2018 seasons, as well as attending Vikings rookie camp in 2018.

The Vikings front office caught a glimpse of both players when they scouted a Fleet-Stallions game after attending the Utah and BYU pro days back in March.

“I give credit to the pro [scouting] side, too, because those guys are watching all the tapes, putting evaluations in on those guys,” Vikings general manager Rick Spielman said. “We have great relationships with the GMs that ran the AAF, talked to them constantly, know a lot of the head coaches in the AAF. [San Antonio head coach] Mike Riley, in fact, coached my son, so I had a pretty good source down there.”

All five of the Vikings’ AAF signings came on the defensive side of the ball, which may have enabled them to focus more on offense in the draft, where they made seven of their 12 selections.

Two of their signings were among the AAF’s premier defensive players, including Schult. He was graded by Pro Football Focus as the seventh-best edge rusher and led the league in pressures.

“Any experience is valuable experience,” Schult said, “but playing against all different types of guys, guys who’ve been drafted in the second or third round, guys who are getting second chances like me — I got to go against really prototypical offensive linemen that are really long and big. I got to go against quicker O-linemen, just getting to see a bunch of different looks.”

The other standout was Smith from San Antonio, a multi-year contributor with the Cincinnati Bengals from 2015-17. The safety was considered PFF’s Player of the Year with a league-high grade at his position, three interceptions and eight defensive run stops. Smith will likely debut at Vikings OTAs.

Both Schult and Martin told Zone Coverage that their advantage over other young players is their fitness. They’ve been in football shape for the past several months playing in the AAF while the majority of their NFL teammates have been in offseason-mode.

Head coach Mike Zimmer said he believes their exposure to the game — albeit for a shorter time than expected — has its benefits.

“Just being around professional football helps them, and understanding the tempo, the footwork,” Zimmer said. “Obviously they’ve had to learn different coverages and things like that, and all these guys have pretty much been in camps before. Some of these guys have looked pretty good out here, but we’re just running around in shorts, so it’s hard to tell.”

For all the drama they’ve endured the past month, the former AAFers in Vikings camp are proof that the league’s objective was sound: To give former or aspiring NFL players another chance to work their way to the big leagues. And the timing of the shut down, ironically, worked out well, as it allowed prospects to join NFL teams before they opened their doors for spring workouts, a “blessing in disguise” according to Martin.

“I felt like I was playing well and had a pretty solid season,” Martin said. “I don’t want to say I knew I was going to get picked up, but I had a good season and I knew I was going to have a shot.”