Faster than Miami Dolphins star wide receiver Tyreek Hill, can Wales international Louis Rees-Zammit make a success of his ‘dream’ move to America as he looks to follow in the footsteps of fellow rugby players Christian Wade and Jordan Mailata in switching to the NFL?
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Image: Louis Rees-Zammit follows in the footsteps of Christian Wade (L) and Jordan Mailata (R) in switching from rugby to the NFL
Louis Rees-Zammit is not the first rugby player try his hand at making it in the NFL, but can he succeed where others have faltered and what sets him apart from his peers?
The 22-year-old Wales international, who played his club rugby at Gloucester, announced on Tuesday he is joining the NFL’s International Player Pathway (IPPP) this month in the hopes of “making my dreams a reality”.
He follows in the footsteps of one-time England international Christian Wade, among others, but, given Wade did not make a regular-season appearance during his three years with the Buffalo Bills before returning to club rugby and French side Racing 92 in 2022, has Rees-Zammit possibly bitten off more than he can chew?
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Wade shows rugby to NFL is tough path to tread
Wade is the most obvious example that Rees-Zammit can learn from, having both plied their trade on the wing in rugby union, and the Welshman already has the benefit of a five-year head start on the former Wasps star who was 27 when he made the switch in 2019.
Watch Christian Wade score a 65-yard touchdown with his first touch of the ball in an NFL preseason game for the Buffalo Bills!
Wade successfully came through the IPPP to land as a running back with the Bills, sensationally scoring a 65-yard touchdown with his very first touch for the team in a preseason game against the Indianapolis Colts. However, he would never see the field in a regular season contest and Wade previously hinted at how his greatest moment – that TD against the Colts – was symptomatic of his struggle to make the switch.
“The way I did my hand off, I kind of got in trouble for that,” Wade said. “Initially I had it in the right pocket, but when I realised I was going to cut back, I went back to taking the ball like I was catching a rugby ball.”
Wade added of his start in Buffalo: “The first week or so was definitely a shock to my system.
Former Wasps winger Christian Wade discusses the difficulties in transitioning from rugby to the NFL.
“I wasn’t used to training at that intensity for that many days in a row. It’s literally just go, go, go all the time. What I’ve learned about this game so far in terms of looking after your body is that you need to know how to recover because you don’t have a lot of time to rest.”
Wade is not the only homegrown rugby player to take their talents to America. Christian Scotland-Williamson and Alex Gray had too made the move from the Gallagher Premiership to the IPPP, landing with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Atlanta Falcons, respectively.
Again, neither saw the field in a competitive game before attempting to return to rugby. Gray can now be seen on the rebooted Gladiator TV series, taking down contenders as ‘Apollo’.
Speed to rival the ‘Cheetah’: where does Rees-Zammit fit in?
Rees-Zammit’s greatest strength is his speed. Like with Wade, it could make him a natural fit at the running back position, or, alternatively, could there be a fit at wide receiver? Or both.
Sky Sports’ Neil Reynolds likened him to San Francisco 49ers dual threat Deebo Samuel, saying on the latest Inside The Huddle podcast: “You play him a bit at wide receiver, you stick him in the backfield, let him return some kicks. There’s a lot of things he could do and it will be interesting to see how they use him at the upcoming camp.”
On the Inside the Huddle podcast, Neil Reynolds and Jeff Reinebold envision the role Louis Rees-Zammit could carve out in the NFL
There’s also another obvious comparison. Rees-Zammit has once been clocked at a top speed of 24.2mph during a rugby game, quicker than the 23.2mph once produced by arguably the best receiver in the NFL right now, Tyreek Hill.
Hill was a world-class sprinter in high school, running the 200m in 20.14 seconds, aged 18 – ranking him sixth in the entire US in 2012. He has since translated that devastating speed to the NFL, earning the nickname ‘Cheetah’.
Not taken till the fifth round of the 2016 NFL Draft, Hill was not the prototypical NFL receiver at the time, considered undersized at 5 ft 10 and 191 lbs.
Tyreek Hill had a massive 1,717 receiving yards for the Miami Dolphins in the 2023 NFL season!
But, named to the Pro Bowl in each of his eight seasons in the league, winning the Super Bowl with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2019 and flirting with becoming the first receiver to ever top 2,000 yards in a season this year for the Miami Dollphins, Hill has since revolutionised how the position is viewed and every team is now on the lookout for their own explosive, home-run threat at the position.
Could this be Rees-Zammit’s in?
What is the International Player Pathway and who are its successes?
The IPPP was launched by the NFL in 2017 as the brain-child of British Dallas Cowboys coach Aden Durde in view of providing athletes from outside the US with an opportunity to vie for a spot on an NFL roster.
Since the programme was launched, 37 international players have signed with NFL teams, whether it be through allocation, the draft or as a free agent.
Image: Jordan Mailata came through the NFL's International Player Pathway Programme and is now a key part of the Philadelphia Eagles offensive line
Australian Jordan Mailata, a starting left tackle for the Philadelphia Eagles, has emerged as the programme’s biggest success story after also making the switch from rugby, where he was a prop coming through the ranks on the South Sydney Rabbitohs’ U20s team.
Wade, Gray and Scotland-Williamson all came through the programme, but it is defensive end Efe Obada who has been the biggest British success story, playing six seasons in the NFL – albeit his latest one with the Washington Commanders was capped in Week 11 when breaking his leg in the home defeat to the New York Giants.
Obada’s journey to the NFL is an incredible one. Born in Nigeria, he and his sister were trafficked to England via Holland aged 10 and were left homeless. They initially slept in an office block before moving around various different foster homes.
British NFL player Efe Obada recorded an interception in his first career start for the Carolina Panthers
From there, he would ultimately make his way to the NFL as an IPPP graduate, becoming the first player to earn a spot on a team’s active roster through it, before earning the game ball with a one-sack, one-interception performance in his competitive debut with the Carolina Panthers in 2018.
The UK also now have Ayo Oyelola (Jacksonville Jaguars) and Adedayo Odeleye (Houston Texans) representing, the pair coming through the programme in 2022, before a record eight athletes were assigned to teams during the 2023 cycle, including six from Osi Umenyiora’s Uprise programme in Nigeria.
Will Harry Kane follow Rees-Zammit to America?
Despite Rees-Zammit’s move, the most high-profile sporting switch to the NFL may well be yet to come.
England captain and Bayern Munich striker Harry Kane has previously talked of his desire to continue playing sport at the highest level once his footballing career draws to a close – as a kicker in the NFL.
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The 30-year-old, a huge fan of the sport and specifically the New England Patriots, first said as far back as 2019: “That’s real, something that in 10 or 12 years I definitely want to try.
“It goes back to that drive to be the best… If you play in the Premier League and the World Cup, and you then play in the NFL, would you then be considered one of the greatest sportsmen ever?”
England captain Harry Kane tells former NFL star JJ Watt he still has ambitions to be a NFL kicker in the future
Kane’s suggested timeframe would see him consider the switch when aged 35-37 and, though kickers are among the lowest-paid in the NFL, they also tend to have the longest shelf life, many playing into their 40s, thus making Kane’s ambition feasible.
Remarkably, he’s not even the first former Tottenham Hotspur striker to flirt with the move. Famously, in 1997, Clive Allen was a kicker for the London Monarchs in the now defunct NFL Europe league, though he never made the NFL grade.
Image: Former Tottenham striker Clive Allen appeared as a kicker for the London Monarchs in NFL Europe
In 2013 there was also talk of a certain David Beckham being offered an NFL deal after having reportedly impressed during a 2007 adidas commercial, though it was largely dismissed as nothing more than a publicity stunt.
Back to rugby, and a similar story to Allen’s, former Scotland international full-back Gavin Hastings was a kicker for the Scottish Claymores in NFL Europe in 1996, while England World Cup winner Jonny Wilkinson too toyed with the idea.
“I have thought about the NFL a little bit,” he said in 2013. “I would love to go over to America. I need to see the transition as one door closing and a very attractive one opening.”
So, what’s next for Rees-Zammit?
Rees-Zammit’s NFL adventure begins on Friday with a flight to Florida ahead of a 10-week intensive training camp as part of the IPPP, at the end of which he will find out if a team wishes to sign him.
That’s just the start. Like with Wade and others who have traversed the same path before him, then making a team’s starting roster is another battle in itself.
Sky Sports News’ James Cole assesses Louis Rees-Zammit’s chances of success in the NFL following his shock decision to quit rugby
Training camps and offseason workouts are run by each team in May, ahead of the preseason in August, where rosters are trimmed down to 53 players prior to the season’s start in September.
Each NFL team have 11 starters on offense and 11 on defense, leaving room for depth of roughly two or three players at each position and, of that 53-man roster, only 46 can dress to take part in any given game week-to-week, leaving places at a real premium.
Should Rees-Zammit fail to make a team’s final roster, he could still be signed to a team’s practice squad where a total of 17 players can be housed – positions normally reserved for precisely the kind of developmental prospect that he represents.
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It is undoubted the Welshman has enormous potential. Not just in terms of his obvious athletic ability. As the NFL looks to continue its expansion into Europe and other territories, most notably with the International Series fixtures that take place each year, Rees-Zammit can bring the game to a whole new audience.
That’s not to say the move is not a risk for the youngster as he trades in a sport where he is already a star for one where a practice squad check of approximately £160,000 a year is only guaranteed week-to-week.
That said, he is young enough to return to rugby should things not pan out, perhaps even in time to be considered for the next World Cup in Australia in 2007. Not that he is looking at that possibility.
“It’s nothing about rugby,” Rees-Zammit said upon announcing his switch. “It’s about my ambition to make my dream come true and play in the NFL.”