Players To Watch: Week 1

April 25, 2024
By Daniel Cohen

Opening weekend is here, and after a busy offseason filled with enticing player movement, Week 1 will feature several notable 2024 debuts across the league. The following list features a handful of them, in addition to some key returners who are set to make big impacts in the first weekend of UFA action. 

Lukas Ambrose, Seattle Cascades

Set to make his Seattle Cascades debut this Saturday against San Diego, reigning Rookie of the Year Lukas Ambrose will look to build on one of the more impressive defensive seasons we’ve seen in some time. While blocks are still one of our lone defensive categories and can sometimes get inflated due to factors like lower levels of opponent play, or lucky positioning, etc, watch Ambrose play and you’ll see just how few of his league-leading 24 blocks were given. This guy is earning each and every block with superior instincts, incredible athleticism, and a ball-hawk mentality. The former Aviator is now back in the Pacific Northwest—he played college ultimate at Oregon—and he joins an intriguing Cascades team that, after a strong offseason, will look to make a legitimate push for a playoff spot. Ambrose will look to set the tone early against San Diego; he racked up six blocks in two meetings with the Growlers last year.

Hayden Austin-Knab, Atlanta Hustle

I’m kind of always waiting for a Hayden Austin-Knab breakout season—is 2024 the year? Still the impressive all-around talent that we saw dominate at college nationals for the University of Georgia, HAK played mostly D-line last year after playing over 85 percent of his points on offense from 2019 to 2022, and he contributed seven goals, four blocks, and over 600 total yards in five games. Five of those goals came in Week 4 at Carolina, including a SportsCenter Top 10 layout score, so maybe we can expect to see similar magic in this week’s Atlanta at Carolina Game of the Week. The Hustle lost O-line cutters Max Thorne and Liam Haberfield this offseason, and Matt Smith is also out this first week, so there’s definitely a vacancy that needs to be filled in a big opening weekend rivalry game—Austin-Knab could slot in nicely as a midfield hybrid in the flowy Hustle offense. On the other hand, he did look good as a primary matchup defender last year and is a nice threat to have on the counterattack, so we’ll see how Head Coach Tuba Benson-Jaja decides to optimize his role.

Jeff Babbitt, Boston Glory (Pictured)

There’s lots to watch on this revamped Glory squad, but there was no bigger offseason news than the signing of 2023 MVP Jeff Babbitt, who will make his Boston debut tomorrow night against Montreal after seven seasons and three championships with New York. Arguably the biggest free agent signing in league history, the Babbitt addition is particularly worth watching because of his two-way ability—does Boston let him dominate as a downfield O-line cutter and red zone machine? Do they play him on defense to generate turnovers and be a cheat code end zone target after turnovers? It feels like Boston has been searching for an identity ever since they joined the league in 2021, and Babbitt is the type of player that you can build an entire team identity around. This could turn into one of the more savvy defensive teams in the league with Babbitt and Ben Katz lurking on D-line, or one of the most dominant big-boy-ball offenses with the Babbitt-Tannor Johnson-Go-Orion Cable trio downfield. Week 1 could be a good time to experiment (although Cable is expected to be out), as Boston hosts a Montreal team that went winless in 2023.

Thomas Edmonds, DC Breeze

Thomas Edmonds is one of the more interesting players on the Breeze coming into 2024 based on last year’s usage; Edmonds started the year on offense before shining as a defensive playmaker and counterattack leader in the second half of the season. Head Coach Lauren Boyle will have her work cut out for her in figuring out the most optimal Breeze lineups this year, and Edmonds may find himself playing more offense following the departures of field-stretchers Christian Boxley and Ben Oort. Even with those two, this Breeze offense averaged the second-fewest hucks per game in 2023. Ultimate Canada’s 2023 Open Division Athlete of the Year, Edmonds is one of the most well-rounded players in the game—he’s averaged nearly 200 receiving yards and 200 throwing yards per game over the last three seasons—and could help unlock DC’s downfield game, in addition to serving as yet another stable throwing presence on the O-line. As it was last year, his usage is worth following all season.

Liam Haberfield, New York Empire

The New York Empire signed Liam Haberfield this offseason, and it really couldn’t have come at a better time, as it’s looking like Ryan Osgar could end up sitting out the entire season. Haberfield is not a replica of Osgar by any means, but his skillset may allow him to slot in as The Guy in the Empire offense; Haberfield is a talented cutter with throws (especially a flick huck) that can take the top of defenses, so it’d make a ton of sense if he steps into a similar Osgar-esque role. Without Elliott Chartock this week, expect New York to run more of a two-man game in the backfield with the conservative play of Solomon Rueschemeyer-Bailey and Jack Williams, which could put an emphasis on Haberfield and the rest of the cutters on the continuation throwing game. The matchup with Montreal presents a nice confidence-building opportunity as New York goes for its record-setting 31st straight win.

Joe Merrill, Salt Lake Shred

*Sounding the alarms* Interdivisional revenge game!!! Those who know me know that I’m a sucker for a good revenge game narrative, and there’s no better one than Joe Merrill this week against the DC Breeze. He keeps flip flopping teams, and I’m sort of here for it—Merrill played O-line in his rookie year with DC and inaugural Shred season, before switching to D-line in his return to DC last year. He now has the opportunity to show off to both teams at the same time, as the Shred host the Breeze in the first Super Series game of 2024. Talking about Merrill earlier this week, Head Coach Bryce Merrill said, “He looks very, very good.” In his first year with the Shred, Merrill was a defensive spark plug whenever he crossed over to D and earned 11 blocks on the year; we’ll see what kind of defensive intensity he can bring to the D-line in his first matchup against his former team.

Drew Swanson, Carolina Flyers

Crossing my fingers for some Drew Swanson on Brett Hulsmeyer action this weekend. Swanson is expected to make his Flyers debut on Saturday after an injury kept him out most of 2022 and all of 2023. The former Chicago Union and Seattle Cascades defender took no time at all to make his impact felt on each of his two previous teams, and I expect more of the same with Carolina; Swanson’s aggressive use of his 6’5” frame has led to stifling matchup defense and numerous layout blocks throughout his career, in clutch moments too. Tight windows simply don’t work when he’s in coverage, and really no in-cut is safe. Among players with at least 20 career games played, Swanson ranks third all-time in blocks per game, averaging 2.0 in 27 career games. If he’s able to come back from injury and showcase the same athleticism that’s been on display since he joined the league in 2019, he’s going to be invaluable to a Flyers defense that averaged the third-fewest blocks per game (8.0) in 2023.