March 28, 2023
By Adam Ruffner
The title is a bit of a misnomer this week as I'm shifting this column from its usual countdown rankings format into a generalized list of defenders I'm excited about in the upcoming season. All 10 selections will be key contributors on prospective playoff teams, and with a handful figuring to be among the league leaders in blocks by the end of the schedule.
Justin Burnett, Atlanta Hustle
The youngest player on this list, Justin Burnett had four multi-block games as a rookie last year in just nine starts. He showed an ability to guard multiple positions, adapt in transition, and consistently make explosive plays. Burnett is sticky in single coverage, and possesses the physical tools and mentality to cover acres of space when he targets a disc in flight.
Atlanta’s South Division rivals from Austin and Carolina have some of the best offensive weapons and playmaking in the league, and Burnett is an important piece in helping the Hustle dampen attacks. He has the potential to match opposing team’s stars step-for-step, and he’s only just beginning to tap into his powers.
Jace Bruner, Chicago Union
Since his first game as a pro, Jace Bruner has been a high-impact block getter. His blistering acceleration allows him to close gaps and cause chaos, and his smaller stature actually helps him cloak in coverage for big poach blocks in the lane. Bruner doesn’t turn 24 until late July—he has 19 takeaways in just 14 starts in his first two years as a pro—so there’s still plenty of room for additional development in his second season with the Chicago Union, and now as a team captain.
With Jason Vallee gone to LA and Nate Goff TBD on his return, the Union defense begins 2023 down a few big starters and faced with a lot of questions after finishing as a top five unit last year. But with Bruner and other block earners Asher Lantz and John Jones still in the lineup, Chicago has the firepower to win slim turnover battles in a tight Central Division.
Ben Jagt, New York Empire
Already 14th all-time in blocks (126) despite playing 58 percent of his career points on offense, Ben Jagt was a difference maker on defense in the back half of New York’s title run in 2022. The two-time MVP weaponized his knowledge as a scoring legend and became a 6’6” free safety on the back end for NY’s defense, able to cloak opposing WR1s and cover massive swaths of the field; for all his skills, Jagt’s pure running ability still doesn’t get discussed enough.
In a league that seems to multiply in talent every season, Jagt remains a Shaq-like dominant force that can outright win games for New York. The Empire held opponents to the lowest scoring average in league history* last year, return virtually every D-line starter, and now get a full season of Jagt in coverage rotations.
Sterling Knoche, Madison Radicals
After back-to-back seasons as the Madison Radicals first receiving option on offense, Sterling Knoche is reportedly returning to the D-line for 2023. In his first three seasons from 2017 to 2019, Knoche was known as one of the most imposing defenders and productive block getters in the AUDL. His 2.03 blocks per game average over his first 36 starts as a pro would rank sixth all-time in league history.
The Radicals ranked in the league’s top four teams in takeaways for six straight seasons, and suspiciously dropped into the middle of the pack when Knoche shifted to offense. Knoche doesn’t turn 30 until later this year, and getting back a defender of his caliber still in his prime could mean a world of difference for a Madison team in a four-way battle for three playoff spots in the Central.
AJ Merriman, DC Breeze
Entering his fourth season and two years removed from earning Defensive Player Of The Year and Most Improved honors, AJ Merriman is starting to feel like a league veteran despite 2023 still only being his “Jordan Year”. One of the best pullers and counter-attacking players, Merriman has averaged at least one assist and one block per game over 38 career starts. His length is equally important as a defender and a thrower, giving Merriman an edge in verticality and arm power.
Merriman started last season much slower than his electric 2021 campaign, and recorded just two takeaways in his first seven starts. He found his groove during the final month of the schedule and finished strong with nine blocks in his final six games. The DC Breeze face playoff teams in four of their first five games, and will need Merriman to reignite his hot play after the long offseason.
John Randolph, New York Empire
One of the details that continually comes up when describing John Randolph is his ability to own small spaces, as Daniel Cohen pointed out yesterday with Randolph’s incredible handblock in the 2022 AUDL semifinals. Not only does Randolph have the hand strength, quickness, and dexterity of a karate champion, he seems to have a similar mental approach; at a glance, Randolph can be boring to watch at times because he appears to simply win in one-on-one matchups a majority of the time, but that success is because of a ruthless and repeated application of force over the smallest area possible; Randolph does nothing better than beat opponents at the margins.
Randolph joined the Empire in June of last season, and in his eight appearances New York gave up more than 20 goals just once, and allowed just 15.5 goals per game with him in the rotation. That’s more than a goal fewer than New York’s 2022 season average of 16.6 goals per game allowed, which set the single season league record for lowest opponent average.
Cody Spicer, Colorado Summit
Between all the personal accolades and the Colorado Summit’s strong run through the semifinals, it’s hard to believe Cody Spicer is gearing up for just his second season as a pro. The reigning DPOY provides a little bit of everything in coverage, and can generate turnovers in the handler space and downfield with his athleticism. Spicer limits spacing for his matchup to the point where it looks downright claustrophobic, and he has the best head swivel and adjustments in the league right now.
With the West Division becoming the hotbed of offseason star movement for some of the league’s top scorers like Pawel Janas and Grant Lindsley, Colorado rostering the league’s toughest matchup in Spicer gives them an important leverage piece for another deep postseason run.
Phil Turner, Toronto Rush
The league leader in blocks and an all-star last season, the 6’3” Phil Turner is a sledgehammer in space in single coverage. Able to track and swat down discs intended for both his and nearby receivers, Turner is elite at reading the disc before his opponent and has the speed to outrace most players to the spot. But despite his individual talents, Turner was just one of the few bright spots for a Toronto Rush defense that ranked in the bottom five in the AUDL in numerous defensive categories.
The Rush were one of the youngest teams in the league in 2022, with Turner and Kevin Jay the lone returning defensive starters from the season prior. The Toronto roster is a year older and more experienced, and adds an exciting bunch of offseason signings that includes 2017 team leader in blocks Mike Mackenzie. With even more stout defenders surrounding him, Turner could continue his tear that has seen him lead the league in total blocks over the past two seasons.
Jason Vallee, Los Angeles Aviators
Jason Vallee played a massive role in Chicago’s championship appearance last season, both for his matchup defense and for his ability to lead the counterattack as a thrower. Now entering his fifth season and newly signed with the Los Angeles Aviators, Vallee is a key piece in reconstructing a D-line that averaged the sixth fewest break scores per game in the league in 2022.
Vallee has had a high motor his entire career, but in the past two seasons he’s honed into a defender who can guard any position and punish opponents for small mistakes. He has a great nose for the disc, and can eat up floaty throws and turn them into transition opportunities, something he should be afforded a lot more in the windy conditions of the West.
Joey Wylie, Austin Sol
Watch a few points of any Austin Sol game, and you’re likely to notice Joey Wylie hunting. There’s an intensity to the way Wylie even runs, and if he senses the chance to make a play on the disc, he has cobra-like finishing abilities to get the disc for the Sol. Wylie hasn’t missed a game in his first two seasons, and his near limitless stamina allows him to be a force in transition as a receiving threat.
In his first playoff game last August, Wylie continued to make impact plays at a high rate, finishing with an eye-catching plus-four rating as a defender despite Austin’s narrow two-goal loss to Carolina. There’s few who can combine Wylie’s consistency and playmaking.
* AUDL changed its clock rules and removed two games from the schedule starting in 2019, which has led to much lower scoring rates than in the first seven seasons of the league’s existence.
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