The International Player Pathway Program: What it is, and why it will change the NFL

On May 25th 2017, the NFL announced that all 4 teams from the NFC South had signed players of various positions from Europe. Alex Gray, Alex Jenkins, Efe Obada, and Eric Nzeocha signed for the Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans Saints, Carolina Panthers, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers respectively. The four hailed from Europe; namely the United Kingdom and, in Nzeocha’s case, Germany.

In an unprecedented commitment to the growth of the sport outside of the US, the NFL created a scheme that, they hope, will see a rise in competing international players. This season will see the dawn of a new age for the international branch of the NFL, as the International Player Pathway Program (catchy name) will see its debut. So, being the absolute opportunist I so clearly am (he types a month after the initial announcement), I sat down for an interview with myself to explore what the International Player Pathway Program, and what it means for the league moving forward. I will not be typing out “International Player Pathway Program” every time.

 

Alex Gray (Tight End) has been picked up by the Atlanta Falcons Photo Credit – Jed Leicester

What is the International Player Pathway Program?

Good question, me. The IPPP essentially gives a team an extra practice squad spot, reserved exclusively for a player from outside of the United States. That player cannot be cut in their first season, giving them a full season to adapt to the demands of NFL football. However, they cannot be promoted from the Practice Squad to the active roster.

Alex Jenkins (Defensive End) played Rugby for the Bristol Aztecs before making the switch to the New Orleans Saints Photo Credit – Jed Leicester

Sounds decent. So what does that mean?

The key thing to take into account here is “they cannot be promoted from the Practice Squad to the active roster”. There have been European players try their hand at cracking the NFL without some sort of college level experience previously. Lawrence Okoye, Anthony Dablé, even Efe Obada all tried. But these lads were always up against it. The biggest hurdle for overseas players appears to be that the speed of the professional game. It may sound obvious, but the NFL is much quicker than what they are used to. By guaranteeing a full year in a Practice Squad role, these lads will have the opportunity to adjust without fear of being let go. And, hopefully, this will give them the best chance to succeed.

Eric Nzeocha (Linebacker) actually played college football for the University of Wyoming. Tampa Bay will hope his previous state-side experience will equate to an easier transition Photo Credit – Jed Leicester

Alright cool. How did this come to be?

This is all guesswork at this point. One would speculate the success of the Osi Umenyoira-headed “Undiscovered” YouTube series last season led the NFL to look deeper into international development. Those who watched that particular series (found here) will recall that 2 of the 3 players featured went on to earn contracts of varying commitment (Anthony Dablé signed with the New York Giants, Moritz Böhringer was drafted by the Minnesota Vikings in the sixth round of the 2016 Draft). The series made it clear that untapped talent was growing outside of the US.

Efe Obada (Defensive End) has bounced around various practice squads. Perhaps a year in one place will give him the stability needed to succeed Photo Credit – Jed Leicester

So…what next?

Naturally, with the NFL being as money focused as it is, they didn’t want to jump all in. Their player development fingers were soundly and royally burned with the failed NFL Europe experiment. I would assume that limiting the program to only the NFC South will give them an idea as to whether it would work league-wide. That said, we won’t see the full extent of the program’s success until August/September 2018. Y’know, when these players are eligible to be cut.
Most likely we’ll see the opportunity rotated to the AFC South or something, while focus turns to the boys currently being tutored by the four NFC South sides. Presuming at least 2 of the 4 make it, in active or practice roster capacity, you would expect a league-wide roll out of the IPPP for the 2019 season. BOOK IT.

In Conclusion…

Naturally it remains to be seen whether the players involved in the debut incarnation of the International Player Pathway Program will make grade. What we are seeing, however, is a focus shift, albeit a slight focus shift, towards the rest of the globe. Players of international origin (mainly British) are not only playing in the NFL, but competing at a high level. The IPPP offers hope to kids across the pond that they too can one day line up alongside their heroes. For the first time ever, there is a genuine path into the NFL.

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