Rugby star Louis Rees-Zammit needs a small miracle to succeed in the NFL

<span>Photograph: Stéphanie Lecocq/Reuters</span>” src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/ a1a46b” data-src= “–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/ 6b”/></div>
<p><figcaption class=Photograph: Stéphanie Lecocq/Reuters

Louis Rees-Zammit is the latest rugby player to take his talents to the NFL. Follow the path of Jarryd Hayne and Christian Wade, two former internationals who abandoned rugby at or near their prime to venture into American football.

Rees-Zammit announced on Tuesday that he would leave Wales ahead of the Six Nations to join the NFL’s International Player Pathway Program (IPPP), a 10-week initiative giving athletes from around the world the opportunity to earn a place in an NFL roster. .

The number of foreign players in the NFL has increased steadily in recent years. We’ve had a Scottish punter, Australian linemen and an English pass rusher, all of whom, like Rees-Zammit, had limited exposure to the sport before reaching the highest level.

Still, the odds of Rees-Zammit making the league, on the kindest reading, are long: Very few IPPP players have had significant NFL careers. In rugby, he is a dynamic athlete. In the NFL, he’s just another quick 6-foot-2, 200-pound player in a sport that produces hundreds of them each year at elite college programs. It’s a league where people whose job is throw the ball can do this when asked to run:

Or this:

It’s not that Rees-Zammit isn’t an excellent athlete, it’s the fact that he is competing against hundreds of other excellent athletes, who have been practicing (and learning the nuances of) a complex sport for years. Standing out in that ecosystem is difficult. Even harder: understanding the intricacies of a specific position or a team’s playbook.

There are usually thousands of plays in an NFL playbook. The famous 2001 Rams playbook from the Greatest Show on Turf had more than 3,000 individual calls. And each play comes packed with subtleties for each position: a simple pass route can have hundreds of different alterations.

Related: Louis Rees-Zammit leaves rugby in shock to pursue dream of NFL career

It’s a league where athleticism gives you access and a deep understanding of the game earns you playing time.

Given those limitations, it’s difficult to determine what position Rees-Zammit will play. Ten years ago, he would have a chance to make a team as a kick returner, someone who could run the open field without needing to accept the entire playbook. But as the league has slowly legislated kickoff returns out of play due to concerns about player safety, those returning are now secondary players.

Taking up the sport at age 22 makes it difficult to imagine Rees-Zammit playing defense. NFL defenses are incredibly complex. A single defensive coverage in the Kansas City Chiefs playbook has 650 different variations. It can take a player more than 10 years to figure out what’s going on before the snap, let alone figure out where to be and what to do once the ball is in play. The college game’s brightest stars can often fade away once they reach the pros due to their limitations in understanding the details of an NFL scheme. The IPPP has had success producing pass rushers, but Rees-Zamit is too small to fill that role.

Typically, when players have converted to the league, they have played offense, where players have the advantage of (more or less) knowing where the ball is going before it is snapped. Running back is often the position where crossover sports stars get opportunities. Hayne made the switch from rugby to the NFL in 2015. He was given a chance in San Francisco as a running back and return specialist before jumping around a couple of practice squads.

Wade made the same change. Standing at 5-foot-9 and with thrusters in his feet, Wade had the archetypal build for a running back. He was short (for the NFL), big and explosive. Two plays into their first preseason game, it looked like the teams might have gotten something done with the whole rugby conversion thing. Wade took a crude pass from his quarterback, dug his foot into the ground, and stepped out into the light of day.

But Wade’s career was emblematic of the problem of changing sports. Once he entered the open field, Wade became the downhill force he was in rugby. But his career was so effective precisely because No Follow the playbook. The defense that followed his career and hit his traditional marks was wrong. For a single highlight, that can work. But play after play, it’s impossible. Coaches won’t accept a player not following the scheme and opposing defenses will soon figure out how to stop him.

Rees-Zammit will face similar issues regardless of which position he ends up playing. His most likely spot will be at wide receiver. And while the running back position is full of complexities, playing receiver in the NFL is a completely different world.

It’s one of the most technical positions in the league, requiring an athletic foundation but largely revolving around the nuances of where to run, when to wait for the quarterback’s release and how to adapt to opposing defensive schemes. Making those kinds of reads in real time is the highest art in the NFL. It requires second-by-second mapping of 21 other human beings in motion and the intellectual capacity to think one step ahead of them.

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

The most successful IPPP candidates to date have played either offensive or defensive line. Jordan Mailata played rugby in Australia before turning 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.

That Mailata has become one of the league’s best players at one of its most valuable positions is a minor miracle. But Mailata entered the Philadelphia locker room with unusual traits. At 6-foot-8 and 365 pounds, he entered the league as one of its biggest players. He also found himself involved in an offense that took advantage of his best abilities and limited his weaknesses. It was clear what the could become, even if the path had rarely been traveled before. Rees-Zammit, on the other hand, does not stand out for his size.

Additionally, Mailata was 21 when he was drafted and spent a couple of seasons slowly cooking in the background, learning his trade, before earning some game time. Rees-Zammit is almost 23 years old, old by NFL rookie standards.

Make no mistake, what Rees-Zammit is attempting is admirable. Approaching the peak of his powers, he walks away from a sport in which he is a star to ride a bus with reserve players in a complex and grueling sport. Even making a franchise’s practice squad (effectively the reserve team) would be a notable achievement. He is giving up a guaranteed income for the opportunity to receive a practice squad check, a $200,000 a year salary that is only guaranteed week to week; NFL teams are known for cutting players they don’t believe are up to par.

On the other hand, money does not seem to be the Welshman’s objective. “It’s not about rugby,” Rees-Zammit told the BBC. “It’s about my ambition to make my dream come true and play in the NFL.”

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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *