Rugby star Louis Rees-Zammit needs a minor miracle to make it in the NFL

Louis Rees-Zammit is the latest rugby player to put his talents to the service of the NFL. He follows in the footsteps of Jarryd Hayne and Christian Wade, two former international players who left rugby at or near their peak to take up American football.

Rees-Zammit announced on Tuesday that he would leave Wales ahead of the Six Nations to join the Six Nations NFL’s International Player Pathway Program (IPPP), a ten-week initiative that gives athletes from around the world the opportunity to earn a spot on an NFL roster.

The number of foreign players in the NFL has grown steadily in recent years. We have had a Scottish gamblerAustralian linemen and an English pass rusherall of whom, like Rees-Zammit, had limited exposure to the sport before reaching the top level.

Still, in the friendliest reading, Rees-Zammit’s chances of making the league are high – very few IPPP players have gone on to meaningful careers in the NFL. In rugby he is a dynamic athlete. In the NFL, he’s just a 6-foot-4, 200-pound speedy player in a sport that drafts hundreds from elite college programs every year. It’s a competition between the people whose job it is to throw the ball can do this when asked to run:

Or this:

Three years ago today, Lamar Jackson had this ELECTRIC touchdown against the Titans in the Ravens’ 20-13 Wild Card win over Tennessee

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It’s not that Rees-Zammit isn’t an excellent athlete, it’s the fact that he competes with hundreds of other excellent athletes who have been practicing a complex sport for years – and learning its nuances. Standing out in that ecosystem is difficult. Even more difficult: getting to grips with the complexity of a specific position or a team’s playbook.

There are typically thousands of plays in an NFL playbook. The Rams’ famous 2001 playbook, from the Biggest show on grass fame, had more than 3,000 individual calls. And every play is imbued with subtleties for every position – a simple passing route can have hundreds of different changes.

It’s a league where athleticism gets you in and a deep understanding of the game gets you playing time.

Given these limitations, it’s difficult to figure out what position Rees-Zammit will play. Ten years ago, he would have had a chance to make a team as a kick returner, someone who could sprint around in the open field without having to learn the full playbook. But as the league has done slow legally established kickoff returns from play due to player safety concerns, returners are now minor players.

When you start playing the sport at the age of 22, it is also difficult to imagine Rees-Zammit as a defensive player. The NFL defense is incredibly complex. A single defensive coverage in the Kansas City Chiefs playbook has 650 different variations. It can take well over a decade for a player to figure out what’s going on, let alone know where to be and what to do once the ball is in play. The brightest stars in the college game can often disappear once they reach the pros due to their limitations in understanding the details of an NFL plan. The IPPP has had success producing pass rushers, but Rees-Zamit is too small to fill that role.

When players have converted to the league, they have typically played in attack, with the players having the advantage of knowing (somewhat) where the ball is going before it is snapped. Running back is often the position where cross-sport stars get opportunities. Hayne made the transition from rugby to the NFL in 2015. He got a shot in San Francisco as a running back and return specialist before bouncing around a few practice squads.

Jarryd Hayne briefly swapped rugby league for the NFL. Photo: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Wade made the same switch. Standing tall at 6-foot-1 and with jets in his feet, he had the archetypal build for a running back. He was small (for the NFL), thickly built and explosive. Twice in his first preseason game it looked like teams could be on to something with the whole rugby convert thing. Wade took a rudimentary handoff from his quarterback, stuck his foot in the ground and exploded in the daylight.

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But Wade’s run was emblematic of the problem of switching sports. Once he hit the open ground, Wade was every bit the force he was in rugby. But his run was so effective precisely because he it didn’t follow the script. The defense that followed his run and achieved the traditional goals was on the wrong foot. That can work for a one-off highlight. But snap after snap, it’s a non-starter. Coaches won’t stick with a player who doesn’t follow the plan, and opposing defenses will quickly figure out how to stop him.

Rees-Zammit will face similar issues no matter what position he ends up playing. His most likely spot will be at Wide Receiver. And while the running back position is filled with its complexities, playing receiver in the NFL is a completely different world.

It’s one of the most technical positions in the league, requiring athleticism, but it’s all about the nuances of where to run, when to expect the quarterback’s throw, and how to adapt to the opposing team’s defensive schemes. opponent. Making these kinds of measurements in real time is the highest art of the NFL. It requires mapping 21 other people in motion every second – and the brainpower to stay one step ahead.

The best receivers in the NFL aren’t always the most athletic, but they are often the most intelligent. The real stars are the ones who have both. That’s not to say Rees-Zammit doesn’t have the intelligence to thrive, but his rivals for a roster spot will have been absorbing the complexities of the game for years, leaving the Welshman at a distinct disadvantage.

The most successful IPPP candidates to date have played both offensive and defensive. Jordan Mailata played rugby in Australia before turning his attention to American football. The Philadelphia Eagles selected Mailata in the seventh round of the 2018 draft and he has become one of the best left tackles in the league.

The fact that Mailata developed into one of the best players in the league in one of the most valuable positions is a small miracle. But Mailata walked into Philadelphia’s locker room with rare qualities. At 6-foot-4 and 365 pounds, he entered the league as one of the tallest players. He also found himself in an offense that utilized his best abilities and limited his weaknesses. It was clear what he was could be even though the path had rarely been trodden before. Rees-Zammit, on the other hand, does not stand out because of its size.

Additionally, Mailata was 21 years old when he was drafted and spent a few seasons slow-cooking in the background learning his craft before earning some playing time. Rees-Zammit is almost 23, old by NFL rookie standards.

Make no mistake: what Rees-Zammit is attempting is admirable. Nearing the height of his powers, he leaves a sport where he is a star to drive the bus with reserve players in a complex, pulse-pounding sport. Even assembling a practice squad for a franchise (basically the reserve team) would be a remarkable feat. He gives up a guaranteed income for the opportunity to receive a practice check, a salary of $200,000 per year that is only guaranteed from week to week; NFL teams are notorious for cutting players they believe don’t measure up.

On the other hand, money doesn’t seem to be the issue for the Welshman. “It’s nothing about rugby,” says Rees-Zammit told the BBC. “It’s about my ambition to fulfill my dream and play in the NFL.”

It may be a distant dream, but if Rees-Zammit succeeds, given the position he is likely to play, he will be a pioneer.