With the Pittsburgh Steelers reportedly set to sign Casey Sayles, it got me thinking about what an interesting case it could be to watch. Sayles, originally an undrafted free agent of the Los Angeles Rams in 2017, was in camp with the Steelers last year.
He failed to make the practice squad, with them or with any other team, and ultimately wound up playing in the Alliance of American Football for the Birmingham Iron, where he ended up being graded as one of the top interior defensive linemen in the league.
What I’m wondering about is what kind of effect that actual in-game experience will have in improving his craft and his abilities from one year to the next. Sayles is heading into his third offseason in the NFL now. He didn’t necessarily blow the doors off last season, but was competent enough and got his playing time, even if he lost out to Lavon Hooks for the practice squad.
If he is able to show a meaningful jump, a jump that we can tangibly see, because we directly saw him with the Steelers in training camp and the preseason last year, then I can’t help but think of what that says for the legitimate value of a ‘minor league’, whether that minor league is officially endorsed by the NFL or not.
After all, that was what the AAF’s purpose ultimately hoped it would be—a developmental league that would eventually be acquired by the NFL, who would pay the players’ salaries as they did for NFL Europe, the decades-long minor league.
Obviously, some significant names like Kurt Warner, James Harrison, and Adam Vinatieri got the opportunity to develop their game by playing overseas in the NFL’s minor league. We do know that it could be a legitimate tool to help players improve by giving them opportunities to play that they otherwise wouldn’t have.
More than a dozen AAF players have already signed contracts with NFL teams since the league shut its doors a few days ago, the majority of whom spent all or most of their time in that league as full-time starters, getting reps that wouldn’t have otherwise existed.
It’s for this reason that I will be keeping an especially close eye on Sayles, because I already have a benchmark for where he was last season with the team. He got to play in eight regular season games, the first meaningful reps that he has had the opportunity to take since 2016. How will that have influenced his growth as a player?
Of course the value or lack thereof of a minor league is not going to live or die based on whether or not one player on one team improves from one year to the next with minor league experience in between. But if he is able to make significant strides, that would at least offer a proof of concept, which is key as the XFL’s inaugural season looms for February of 2020.